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Interview with Artist Scott Berry

In February 2015, the Nina Haggerty Centre held an exhibition titled Confusement.
This collaborative project resulted in “a mazelike installation with walls of black and white
eyeballs and a floating see of transparent figures,” and was led by Scott Berry, an Edmonton artist with a disability, and Stantec Artist of the Year. Scott wanted to challenge viewers to consider “the feeling of being stared at but no one can see who you are.” Recently, Ally Duncan of Project Citizenship had a chance to sit down with Scott and ask him to speak about the motivations and processes behind Confusement:

Ally Duncan of Project Citizenship: So Scott, where did the idea for the show come from?

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Scott Berry: Well, it all came out of me. Everyone was working for me, they had to do what I told them to do.

PC: How many people did you have working on it?

SB: Quite a few people had to get involved. I had to get everyone modelling for me. And I had help getting it done, by the staff, and Paul, because it’s a big project. So everybody got involved in it.  And everybody got inside this idea and then the plastic was all done. Everybody was done in different ways, sitting, standing… and after it was done, it took a lot of people to get in this, and it took the whole gallery room, ’cause when Paul and Dave were setting them up, with all the eyes, the whole wall was covered in that, including their workshop door. Everything was there but you didn’t notice it’s there.

sbc8PC: That’s what I liked about it, the whole space surrounding you was like a total environment…

SB: And then of course the other thing was the star of the whole show was sitting by the entrance, on a wooden box, with a white and black piece of paper. and of course it was all blended into the same way the walls all work.

PC: And so why did you choose to have it like that, blending into the walls?

SB: Well ‘cause it’s like a game. You have to find them. It feels like a game called “Find Waldo” … Find me! [Chuckle]

PC: So what was the idea behind Confusement? What was it about?

sbc2SB: Oh, it’s hard to explain it. It’s really hard to explain why I do it. I just do it because, it’s… I don’t know why I’m doing it.

PC: I remember when I went into the gallery, there was the title Confusement on the wall, and underneath that there was a little explanation, like something about being stared at but no one sees who you are…

SB: That’s right. It’s about why are people staring* at you? Gawking at you? It’s because you’re
different. There are people who are different from you or I… There are people in wheelchairs, walkers, blind, deaf, but they’re all different. There’s no reason to gawk at them or laugh at them. It’s not the way you should be doing. We’re not all the same. But some people are not very polite, and they like to tease you sbc7because you’re different, they think you’re useless, they think you’re no good for anything so they laugh at you, and that’s not right. So I said ‘well how would you like putting yourself in our shoes and see how it feels like? How’d you like being teased at? It wouldn’t be funny. it would hurt… There’s no reason to tease them because they’re different. They’re just trying to do their best just like everybody else. So what I’m trying to teach is, it’s about human rights…

PC: Okay yeah I get it… So this experience of being teased or gawked at or stared at, is this something you’ve experienced personally?

SB: Well, sometimes yes and sometimes no. Mostly not really. I’m not doing it for myself, I’m doing it for others that have been gawked at and teased at, and saying “She’s useless, she can’t do nothing” or “He can’t do nothing.” WRONG. Put yourself in their position and see how you’d like being stuck in a wheelchair, or in bed all your life. How would you like that? sbc6How would you like being picked on the same way if you were in the same position? I used to work at a place called St. Joe’s hospital, and there was this guy there that cannot go out of bed without any help. So if I were you, I wouldn’t tease. Or some of the people don’t understand ‘cause they’ve never been in it. Well, it’s not fair to tease somebody and then say “he can’t do nothing, he’s useless”. Well put yourself in their shoes and see how you’d feel. You know? They’re trying their best to do things they want to learn, and then there are people out in the streets who are gawking. Me, I don’t tease them, because I can relate to how that feels like. They’re trying to do their best to figure out how to do things. Like some people can do paintings with their mouth, or with their feet.

PC: There’s an artist from Ireland, Mary Duffy, have you heard of her?

SB: I think I’ve heard of her, I’m not sure though.

PC: She was someone who was exposed to thalidomide before she was born, and when she was born she didn’t have arms. Now she’s an artist, since the 1980’s, and she does some performance art, and some of her work is about this same idea of staring, just like Confusement. As well, since she didn’t have any arms, sbc3since she was a child she started doing things with her feet, and painting with her feet… she does beautiful landscapes and self portraits… But going back to Confusement, something I really loved about the show was this idea of people staring, always looking, gawking, teasing… and how you’re pushing people to put themselves in others’ shoes… It makes me think about the idea of how everyone is “temporarily able-bodied”, you know, at any point in any of our lives, something could happen and we could be in those shoes.

SB: Yeah, for me, I don’t care if someone is a different colour or has a different religion. It doesn’t matter to me! But the truth is, some people use mean names for people who are different. It isn’t very nice. But some people are bigots. They don’t understand that everyone does what we do… we all put our pants on one leg at a time! [Chuckle]. Some people don’t understand. There’s no reason to be a bigot against a neighbour. That has been done many many years ago, and that’s a mistake. And years later, their grandkids, their great-grandchildren, pick up those bad words and it keeps going. It doesn’t stop. And I say it’s gotta stop. I mean seriously, you have to stop insulting people just because they’re different from you.

PC: We’re all humans and we’re all just trying to do our best.sbc4

SB: Exactly. But some people don’t realize that.

PC: So do you think that art has the power to play a role in changing people’s attitudes? In changing bigotry?

SB: Well, I want things to change for the good, not for the worse. Only good. Nothing against nobody, and if anybody does that, that means that they’re WRONG. I started drawing when a kid. The teacher thought I was not paying attention to him. But I heard every word he was saying, but I was sitting there drawing, and when I was drawing at school, my teacher thought I was so good at it. I was doing a comic strip, and he had it put in the newspaper, because it was funny. That was when I was living in Chilliwack, BC. And when I was doing the drawing in school, he said “hey Scott, this is really good!”. And he called up this other artist, or art student, I don’t remember, and he came to my school and met me, and he saw my drawing and he says to me “would you mind if I put it in the newspaper?”. And I said “Go for it, I don’t care.” [Chuckle]

PC: If somebody asks you “what kind of artist are you?”, what would you say?

SB: I’m just a fella who likes doing things without anybody telling me how to do it. I do it sbc5my way.

PC: Instead of gawking, what do you think that people should do when they meet someone who’s different?

SB: Say “Hello, how are ya?”, introduce yourself, and then that way they’re friends. But you don’t go around gawking at them because they’re different.


By Ally Duncan

*If you are interested in reading more about the concept of “staring” as it pertains to disability experience and disability art, check out the book Staring: How We Look, and other works by author & Disability Studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson.