Creating the Opulent – A. Laura Brody
Written by Genie Davis
Opulent Mobility projects have been a part of A. Laura Brody’s work for some time now. Brody says she first started working with wheelchairs, walkers, canes, and mobility scooters after a former partner had a stroke.
“Adaptive devices can be so helpful, but my artist’s eye was horrified at their looks. They seemed almost insultingly ugly,” she says. “After creating my first re-imagined wheelchair – an Edwardian steampunk throne design for a Cannibal Flower event, I learned that I’m not a medical device engineer, but the idea still intrigued me. It was tough finding wheelchair accessible spaces to show my work, and I found all these interesting patents for creative wheelchairs and walkers that never made it onto the market. This fascinated me, and the pushback I got made me even more curious.” Brody adds that as a collaborative artist by nature, with a day job in costume design and construction, and a background in theater, she decided to mount a group exhibition.
She thought undertaking such a venture would not be difficult, but while it proved challenging, the idea of the exhibition has since grown from a small show at the Bell Arts Factory in Ventura to an annual, international exhibit.
According to Brody, “My co-curator Anthony Tusler and I share art and artists dealing with invisible disabilities, learning disabilities, mobility, and sight issues, mental health, ASL based art, and even extreme migraines. It’s wonderful to help build this great community in the disability arts world.”
This year, Brody will be partnering with Larissa Nickel at Antelope Valley College gallery for Opulent Mobility 2022 in October. “Each year, I look for ways to make the exhibit more inclusive and accessible. Last year, we did a full ASL event for the opening, with interpreters at the door and bar and deaf performers who did ASL performances alongside the band.”
Antelope Valley College has its own ASL staff, so that will be included in this exhibition as will art descriptions in both text and audio files. She notes “We’ll also be working to make the exhibit and events more neuro-divergent friendly, which is new for me but very exciting.”
Brody’s own artistic endeavors outside of an adaptive dance troupe called Abilities Dance Boston, for a concert focusing on BIPOC artists and activists of the past and present. She describes her inspiration for this work as combining costume work and mobility art, “since I costume the dancers and their wheelchairs, walkers, and crutches.”
Online courses are also being planned. “One of them is on creating your own custom duct tape mannequin, another on creating rag rugs from reclaimed materials, and another on turning paper and [making] cardboard waste into functional, wearable art.” Brody explains that this work came about because of her 30+ years of costume making and training, as well as her passion for sustainability and reuse. “I have been teaching the kinds of classes I wish were offered when I started out, and now it’s a matter of translating what I teach in person to a video format. I’m learning so much in the process.”
Her third work in progress is sculptural. “My sculpture of ‘Melusine,’ who’s currently about seven feet tall, and will probably stand twelve foot high when completed, is a big part of why I started renting a studio space at The Makery in DTLA. The ceilings in my home studio just aren’t that tall! I also really love seeing other sculptural artists at work, and Dave Lovejoy (who runs the space) is an amazingly creative maker.” Brody relates that “One of the things that affected me during this pandemic is not being able to work alongside others, because that kind of brainstorming really feeds my creative soul. I’m also looking forward to creating in person workshops that can hold more than two-three people safely and the studio is a great space for that.”
Her description of “Melusine” encapsulates both her love of repurposed material and her commitment to mobility challenges. “She’s built into a walker, is constructed using coconut milk and other containers, and is stuffed with clean plastic waste and covered with reused prom dresses, draperies, and evening wear. Her spine is made of the supplement bottles that help me keep my thyroid and hormones in good health. Building ‘Melusine’ helps with the sheer frustration of dealing with the medical system while having a chronic health issue and being menopausal.”
The backstory to Melusine comes from a Medieval French legend. “Melusine was a fairy who took human form and married a man who had accidentally killed a king. She comforted him and told him that she would marry him and give him a great kingdom and many children if only he would leave her alone on Saturdays. She kept her promise, but he did not, spying on her one Saturday to see her in her bath in her original form with fish tails – the legend varies, and sometimes she has a single serpent tail) He finally called her a terrible monster one day, she turned into her true form and flew away, and he was left to die in obscurity,” Brody relates. The moral of the story has been reinterpreted in many ways, but the way I see it is that if you promise to give someone space, give them space!
Regardless of the projects she undertakes, Brody says that her favorite materials are reused and reclaimed. “I have a deep fondness for reusing clothing of all kinds. And zippers. I love using zipper teeth as edging! There’s something so satisfying to me about sculpting and turning materials into something unexpected. When I started out in costumes, I found out that I had a real knack for draping, which is creating clothing on a dress form with fabric, pins, and scissors. I developed a draping method called staple draping that uses staples instead of pins where I drape outfits on live bodies which is such fun for me and for the participants.”
What comes next for Brody? “I led a workshop last winter at Cal State LA for their kinesthesiology department where the students created personalized wheelchairs, walkers, and
canes for their clients and it was fantastic. It’s such a great way to get folks talking about how we deal with disability and aging in our society, and to make these devices more fun to use. I want to hold these workshops in multiple places, especially since the pandemic has made it painfully clear how disabled and elderly folks are disregarded in our society. Over the past two months I’ve been a part of ACTIVATE LA, which is an arts advocacy program through Arts For LA, and I’m learning about how to approach legislators and to find funding for these sorts of art programs. So that’s in the mix, along with OM 2022 and the online courses. ‘Melusine’ will take at least until fall to complete if not longer, and when she’s completed the next big sculptural idea is the goddess Inanna.”
And that’s just her artwork. Her next day gig involves a Nickelodeon kids’ sitcom where she will do alterations and create costume gags. These shows are a good fit for me, since the kids aren’t allowed to work the brutal hours in most TV/film shoots and there are regular hiatus breaks. The work covers my bills and rent and keeps me in insurance while giving me time to work on the projects I love and to build new opportunities.
Opulent Mobility 2022 will run at Antelope Valley College October 1 through October 29; the exhibition is currently mounting a call for art until July 31.