“It’s really meaningful for me that I can make art that lessens the sense of isolation and shame, just by talking about my disability in public.” | photo: self-portrait, Persimmon Blackbridge
activist artist Persimmon Blackbridge other matters
by May 30, 2008|
I like that a lot of people with disabilities can relate to my work. It’s really meaningful for me that I can make art that lessens the sense of isolation and shame, just by talking about my disability in public. And I’m glad that I get to experience other people’s artwork that does the same thing for me. It’s exciting. It’s really nourishing.
For more than 30 years, Persimmon Blackbridge’s politics has fostered her fearless, innovative art. This “learning-disabled - lesbian - cleaning-lady - sculptor - performer - madwoman” feminist | activist | writer | artist has transformed the lives of others through her work. This includes people with learning and other (dis)abilities, people who have been involved in the mental illness and/or prison systems, and those who share the depression she has experienced for much of her life.
She is also committed to exploring lesbian sexuality and culture.
Her ability to take herself seriously as an artist has provided an example and hope to other artists, both emerging and established. Her work has been exhibited in Canada, the U.S., Australia, Europe and Hong Kong.
While her life as an artist began in isolation, Persimmon is anything but solitary. Perhaps her most striking skill is her ability to share the artistic process. Over and over again, Persimmon’s artistic projects have explored formerly taboo subjects. Those projects have then gone on to grow and change in collaboration with others, and to produce works of lasting social and political impact.
Art was scary, art was something that I wasn’t good enough at, so I didn’t do it. And I had a learning disability and there were many things that I wasn’t good at, and I tried to avoid them. I had a really hellish breakdown when I was twenty. My boyfriend and I were living out on Long Beach [Vancouver Island] in a little plastic shack. And one of the things that the guys did was carving, so my boyfriend had some carving tools. When I started to go crazy I started borrowing his carving tools and doing things that were proper for a girl, like bowls and spoons and domestic kinds of things. I found that the pain would stop while I was doing it, so I did it lots. As I was getting through to the end of that breakdown, I figured out that the carving was something I could actually do. So I kicked out the boyfriend, and I kept his carving tools, and I stopped being crazy. Eventually, I had to realize that I was making art, and it was too late to say I couldn’t do it and it was too late to be scared of failing.
In the mid-seventies, Persimmon was making raku statues of naked women – running, standing tall, muscled, full-bodied women.
Women recognizable to women. Women who didn’t resemble magazine models. At a time in North America when women were “supposed” to look as Anglo-Saxon as possible, many of her statues didn’t. During this time – and despite her bad back – she was supporting herself as a house cleaner.
Her first major collaboration was with Sheila Gilhooly, who at 19 had been incarcerated in a mental hospital because she was a lesbian. The result was Still Sane, a massive collection of sculptures made from impressions of parts of Sheila’s body. The text of the show, Sheila’s story, was written on these sculptures.
This was one of the first public representations of the treatment of patients, and probably the very first of the treatment of lesbians, from a patient’s point of view. The show rocked Vancouver and the Lower Mainland.
In 1985, Press Gang published Persimmon and Sheila’s book, also titled Still Sane. It, too, swept through the worlds of feminism and survivors of the mental health system.
Persimmon next collaborated with four women who had spent time in prison or jail. Again, the show, Doing Time, appeared in several galleries, including one in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Lorna Boschman made a video from the show, which appeared on educational television for several years.
While she was working on Doing Time, Persimmon, Susan Stewart and Lizard Jones formed Kiss & Tell, a group that worked together for about 15 years. They collaborated on explorations of the then-raging debates on pornography – from within the “two warring camps in the lesbian community – not wanting to throw out either feminist critique or sexual exploration.”
This project led to the art installation, Drawing the Line, which then went on to become both a video and a book. Their performance piece, True Inversions, led to the book, Her Tongue on My Theory.
Sunnybrook was a solo show with narrative. It concerned an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. The 1993 show led in 1995 to Sunnybrook: A True Story with Lies. This was and is Persimmon’s favourite of the books she’s worked on.
From the Inside Out came out of connections Persimmon made while working on Sunnybrook. It was a huge collaboration involving art and writing by people who had lived in B.C.’s major institutions for people with intellectual disabilities. The show, first mounted in 1998, is still travelling. Once again, another project emerged, when a video was made from the show.
Learning to use a computer changed Persimmon’s life by making it possible to largely bypass her learning disability.
In 1997, she wrote Prozac Highway with “my shiny new toy.” It concerns “depression, the mental health system, and people struggling within it,” and has been published in Canada, the United Kingdom and France.
This was followed by her collaboration with Bonnie Sherr Klein on Slow Dance, Bonnie’s memoir of her stroke, her struggle to recover, and her new identity as a proud woman with a disability. Later, Persimmon worked with Bonnie on her film, Shameless: The ART of Disability.
Then came KickstART 1 and 2 Festivals, in which she participated as both artist and curator.
A sculpture series about “the intertwining of religious and multi-generational alcoholism in my family” became part of Mirificus, a three-woman show which uses “religious iconography to explore feminist themes.”
Persimmon is now working on an anti-war sculpture series called Flags of Our Fathers.
And she is one of the more than 4,000 Canadians who need an organ transplant. Soon.
I don’t know how to write this. I don’t like asking for big giant humongous favours, and this is just about the biggest. I need a kidney. Blood type O.
There is a waiting list. It can take people like Persimmon 5–10 years to get a transplant. According to the Kidney Foundation of Canada, in 2006, 73 people died while waiting for a new kidney. Overall, 243 people died that year while waiting for an organ.
Deceased donors save many lives. Less known is that many living donors also give organs. In 2004, there were 417 deceased donors and 435 living kidney donors. Still, this is nowhere near enough. While kidneys are the most frequent solid organ transplant in Canada, less than one person in five who needs a kidney receives one each year.
Health Canada says this country has one of the lowest organ donation rates among industrialized nations – less than half that of Spain, for example.
In April, the province of Manitoba established a new programme to reimburse expenses for living donors who give a kidney or part of their liver to recipients in the province. British Columbia and Ontario have similar programmes.
how to donate
- talk to a local doctor or hospital
- sign an organ and tissue donor card (one comes with a driver’s licence)
- register consent through a provincial registry
- discuss the decision with loved ones, as family consent might be required at the time of the donation (according to Health Canada, 96% of relatives agree to organ donation if they already know the wishes of the donor, while only 58% agree when they have not been included in the process in advance)
- contact regional transplant programmes:
Atlantic Provinces (902) 496-7008 or 1-800-563-8880 | British Columbia Transplant Society (604) 877-2240 or 1-800-663-6189 | Manitoba Transplant (204) 787-1897 | Newfoundland and Labrador (707) 777-6600 | Northern Alberta, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, H.O.P.E. (Human Organ Procurement Exchange) Edmonton (780) 407-8411 | Organ Donation Ontario 1-800-263-2833 (416) 351-7328 | Quebec Transplant 1-877-463-6366 | Saskatchewan Transplant (306) 655-1054 | Southern Alberta, H.O.P.E. (Human Organ Procurement Exchange) Calgary (403) 944-8700 | Yukon Transplant (867) 667-3673
Persimmon Blackbridge, commissions and collections
- Art Bank of Canada
- Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
- B.C. Provincial Government Collection
- Centre for Independent Living, Calgary
- John Ralston Saul
- Surrey Art Gallery
- United Bank Workers, Vancouver
- Vancouver Art Gallery
- various private collections
- Distinguished Alumni award, Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design | 2000
- Community Partner Award, B.C. Association for Community Living | 1999
- VanCity Book Prize (with Bonnie Sher Klein) | 1998
- Finalist: Lambda Literary Award | 1997
- Finalist: Lambda Literary Award | 1996
- Lambda Literary award (with Kiss & Tell) | 1995
- Community Achievement Award (with Kiss & Tell), Toronto Association for Lesbian and Gay Studies | 1993
- Northwest Film and Video Festival Judges' Award (with Kiss & Tell and Lorna Boschman) | 1992
- VIVA, the Vancouver Institute for Visual Arts award | 1991
- Prozac Highway, by PERSIMMON BLACKBRIDGE, Press Gang Publishers, Marion Boyars | 1997, 1999, 2000
- Slow Dance, by BONNIE SHERR KLEIN, with PERSIMMON BLACKBRIDGE, PageMill Press | 1997
- Sunnybrook: A True Story with Lies, by PERSIMMON BLACKBRIDGE, Press Gang Publishers | 1996
- Her Tongue on My Theory, by PERSIMMON BLACKBRIDGE, SUSAN STEWART, and LIZARD JONES (Kiss & Tell), Press Gang Publishers | 1996
- Drawing the Line, by PERSIMMON BLACKBRIDGE, SUSAN STEWART, and LIZARD JONES (Kiss & Tell), Press Gang Publishers | 1991
- Still Sane, by PERSIMMON BLACKBRIDGE and SHEILA GILHOOLY, Press Gang Publishers | 1985
reference for this feature
Persimmon, by FRANCES ROONEY, Resources for Feminist Research, illustration, pgs 30-32 | 1984