For De’VIA artist, David Call, art has been a way of communication, a way of sharing his imagination, a passion, a method of truth-telling, and a tool for activism. His journey as a Deaf person and as a self-taught artist has been documented through his many linocut images.
One Artist’s Beginnings
David Call was born Deaf in Los Angeles, California in the 1960s. While his parents and oldest brother were Hearing, his middle brother and David were both Deaf. Because they grew up with extensive auditory and speech training and no exposure to sign language, David and his brother created homemade signs to communicate with each other. David also discovered drawing as a way to communicate with his Hearing parents and was drawing images as early as age 4.
While looking in books for drawings to copy, David vividly remembers coming across several works of art at age 6. These works included William Kurelek’s The Maze, Albrecht Durer’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Bosch’s hauntingly surrealistic images in The Garden such as ‘The Treeman’ and ‘Ears with a Knife’ captivated David and Bosch-like images began to appear in his drawings. These artworks have continued to exert a powerful impression and have shaped his work as an artist.
During his early elementary school years, David struggled in the oral education programs that he attended and his natural instinct was to resist the suppression of signs. When David used his hands to communicate, his teachers taped his hands to his desk. He was hit with a yardstick and placed in corners as punishment. He became defiant. When being taught speech, he intentionally slobbered. Once he broke into a classroom to free a pet lizard from a cage—an act he felt reflected his own feelings of being trapped. As a result of being made fun of as a Deaf kid, he became a playground bully. His behavior was not unnoticed by his mother who pulled him out of school just before he was about to be expelled.
David’s mother realized that David needed visual communication and fought the school district to set up an educational program with sign language. She gathered letters from Deaf leaders to help argue that Deaf children need education through sign language. The result was the establishment of a Signing Exact English (SEE) program. SEE, an invented sign code using initialized signs with English grammar, was used in the 1970s in a number of educational programs for Deaf children. Attending this SEE program, David’s communication and academics improved greatly and his bullying behaviors ceased.
After completing elementary school, David transferred to the California School for the Deaf in Riverside. The Deaf students there used American Sign Language (ASL) and David initially underwent a period of culture shock—struggling to understand ASL and learn about Deaf culture. As he settled into a community of Deaf people at the school, he began to feel at home. David thrived academically, and participated in sports, clubs, and leadership activities. His self-confidence and identity as a Deaf person flourished. Here too, his artistic talents were recognized. His high school art teacher, Mrs. Razdin, encouraged David to explore and experiment with a number of artistic mediums, including linocut. She encouraged David to take an advanced independent artistic studies program and introduced him to artists such as Salvador Dali. For the first time he was able to experience being fully immersed into the artistic creation process. Years later, David would recognize Mrs. Razdin’s lasting impact on him as an artist and as a teacher.
After graduating with honors, David entered Gallaudet College taking a double major in history and secondary education. He continued to be involved with sports and fraternity life using his drawing skills to create posters. Academically, history became a real passion and art history was one of his favorite courses. This course whetted his fascination with architecture and medieval style. The artworks he was drawn to by Albert Durer, Salvador Dali, and Hieronymus Bosch were discussed and analyzed in depth. The impact of his studies at Gallaudet can be seen in many of David’s later linocut works which contain powerful historical references.
David returned to California after graduating from Gallaudet and worked to earn his master’s degree in Special Education from California State University, Northridge. He then was hired as a social studies teacher at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont (CSDF). At this time in his life, David focused on his career and raising a family. He had met his wife, Debbie, at Gallaudet and together they were raising three CODA children. (CODA children, Children of Deaf Adults, are Hearing children who have an identity in the Deaf community as having been raised by Deaf signing parents).
During this part of his life, David has said that his art went into “deep hibernation.” As a full time social studies teacher, he taught courses in government, economics, geography as well as world history and American history. Art creeped into his lessons by designing assignments in which students made cold war propaganda posters, 3-D dioramas, and immigrant family scrapbooks.
A De’VIA Artist Emerges
After teaching social studies for 18 years, David felt burnt out and began looking for different opportunities. The art teacher at CSDF had retired and David expressed an interest in the position. While initially the Dean at the school did not believe that Deaf students could benefit from art classes, the high school principal agreed to David’s teaching of two piloted art classes. These classes were clearly a tremendous success. David felt that not only did he prove that Deaf kids could benefit from art classes but that they were truly hungry to make art. Within a year, David was teaching art full time at CSDF. To help create lessons in linocut and model works for his students to study, David’s artistic hibernation ended. His linocut works became popular among his school colleagues and he began to sell a few of them to help fund materials for his classroom.
While David’s piloted classes taught students to make Deaf themed art, he had not yet learned about De’VIA. De’VIA, which stands for Deaf View Image Art, is art which is created to show Deaf people’s experiences. While the concept was coined in 1989, it was just beginning to re-emerge in the early 2000s thanks to the internet. David discovered information about De’VIA online and began introducing De’VIA and De’VIA artworks to his students. David has said that in addition to promoting creative self-expression, De’VIA “helped my students analyze and explore their Deafhood experience.”
The year 2011 was important for David in a number of ways. First, a student introduced him to Deaf artist Nancy Rourke’s work online. Rourke is a De’VIA artist who creates paintings in the primary colors of red, yellow, and blue. Her style is now recognized as “Rourkeism.” What impressed David was that she was a professional artist with a business and an artivist—that is, an artist who uses her art to protest social injustice and oppression. This inspired David to begin creating De’VIA linocuts and the popularity of his works further pushed him to establish his own small business, now the David Call Studio.
As an “artist who teaches,” David developed De’VIA lessons at CSDF in a variety of mediums. Examples of his lessons include: Cubist ASL sculptures, ASL action abstract paintings, ASL facial expression papier mache masks, Tilden life-sized tape sculptures and surreal encaustic paintings. As one of the most innovative De’VIA teachers, David has given workshops for art teachers from Deaf schools and programs across the United States.
De’VIA Linocut Artworks
David’s first De’VIA linocut was a 2011 work titled Deafhood Unleashed. The image consists of shackled hands being freed and the ASL sign for BUTTERFLY superimposed on the image of a butterfly. The design of the linocut also shows an evolution from the dark shackled hands to the illuminated feeling of the butterfly.
While David began experimenting with art by drawing, his captivation with the linocut medium has many sources. He loves the idea of working with “old school” artmaking techniques in a digital age and has promoted a revival of printmaking. While carving an image, David reveres the feeling that he becomes one with the linocut block. Additionally, linocuts produce negative spaces which trigger powerful feelings—particularly useful for when he wishes his works to communicate emptiness and oppression. One benefit to linocuts is that multiple prints can be made from a single image, making them much more affordable. This is an important consideration when making art for members of a community that are economically challenged such as Deaf people.
David creation of De’VIA works relate to his desire to reveal the truth: the truth about the oppressive experiences of his childhood and the truth about how Deaf people experience the world. He hopes that his art will promote the reframing of how Deaf people are viewed by the dominant culture. Common motifs that are used in De’VIA resistance works include rulers, chains, and feathers. David’s linocuts have incorporated all of these motifs in addition to making works with motifs such as skulls, mazes, puppets, robots and the plague doctor. When analyzing David’s linocuts, a number of categories emerge:
Deaf History related works [Breakthrough (de l’Epee), Martha’s Vineyard, Mother
Sign Language, Me your Mother (Alice Cogswell and ASD), The New
Beginning (T. Gallaudet and L. Clerc), George Veditz, Andrew’s Baobab Tree,
and Beacon of Hope].
Works that show resistance to the dominant culture [Deafhood Unleashed, Resistance
(self portrait), Obey, Missing Jigsaw Pieces, Submission, The False Prophet (Ephphatha), and Crucifixion of ASL].
Works that show affirmation of Deaf culture [The Power of ASL, Deafhood
Unleashed, and Star Maker].
Appropriated classics (with a De’VIA twist) [American Gothic, Rosie the Riveter,
Mona Lisa, St George and the Dragon (Veditz and AG Bell), and Deafhood Revolution (Paddy Ladd)].
David’s resistance works began turning up as protest posters in rallies where Deaf people have demonstrated against the systematic oppression of sign language. His feelings of responsibility to future generations of Deaf people which have been magnified by his years of teaching have led him to taking on the role of an artivist whose art serves to challenge educational and social inequalities.
In 2018, David retired from teaching after 30 years. He may never retire from making art. He presently hopes to work as an artist in residence and teach De’VIA workshops in schools. He is an avid traveler who has presented about De’VIA in Russia and Puerto Rico. He hopes to continue to share his De’VIA artworks with Deaf communities across the globe.
David Call’s mantra:
“Art should comfort the disturbed and
disturb the comfortable.”
—Cesar A. Cruz
Click images for titles and specs of artworks.