Inside Drake University’s Tom and Ruth Harkin Center, a short trail of cut-out paper butterflies curves around a tall white ramp that leads to the building’s second floor. From a distance, the butterflies are softly colored, their pastel-hued bodies pressed against the surface, their wingtips lifted as if in motion and flying away.
But another look revealed a bold message.
Tiny raised dots are scattered across the butterflies, some of which appear to have landed on framed pages and blend in seamlessly. For sighted people, the patterned dots may look like ridges that give the paper dimension, but there’s more to the story, local artist Jill Wells teased. All the images, she says, are Braille translations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, a Civil Rights Act that prohibits people with disabilities from being discriminated against and protects their rights.
Placing her own fingers on the dots, Indianola native Wells said her pieces were meant to be touched, reminding that art is an act of discovery.
“In my mind, I just want to flood the ramp with thousands of them (butterflies),” Wells said Oct. 19, two days before the Harkin Center’s Made to Touch: Art + Accessibility event where the man 42-year-old would show some of her work and talk about her role as the first Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement Fellow Artist.
Over the next year, Wells will be at the Harkin Institute leading various projects aimed at making visual art accessible to people with disabilities, with people with disabilities. Wells told the Des Moines Register that she hopes to host an exhibit with approximately five to nine artists with disabilities from Mosaic in Central Iowa, an organization that provides services to adults with autism, behavioral health needs or intellectual and cognitive disabilities. She is also looking to team up with artists from the Iowa Department for the Blind and put together a different exhibit.
Another goal of the Wells fellowship is to raise awareness of art as a career option, especially for people with disabilities, said Daniel Van Sant, director of disability policy at the Harkin Institute. . He said much of Wells’ work already focused on mentoring young artists of color and with disabilities, highlighting the growing need for representation.
“We never want to lose sight of that either,” Van Sant said during his opening speech at Friday’s event, before a small audience. What is striking about Wells, he said, is his vision and commitment to ensuring people with disabilities can also enjoy and experience “the finer things in life” such as art, music and culture.
Last summer, with support from the nonprofit Bravo Greater Des Moines, Wells was able to present her pieces at the Harkin International Disability Employment Summit in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Opening up to more than a dozen attendees, Wells shared that her passion for breaking down barriers of disability is personal.
Nearly two decades ago, Wells’ brother LeeCole had a ruptured arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a rare and abnormal tangle of blood vessels that can cause direct connections between arteries and veins and disrupt flow normal blood. He suffered from a massive cerebral hemorrhage, which resulted in permanent damage, a heart attack and loss of sight. LeeCole’s life changed dramatically while he slept, Wells said.
“He had just gone to prom, was about to graduate from high school, and was working on restoring his 1979 Chevy Silverado,” she said, her voice softening.
She recalled the impact of her brother’s recovery, which is still ongoing, on her family and how a holiday forced her to come to terms with the “great emotions” of a traumatic event and rethink her approach to art. Wells thought back to a Christmas when she and LeeCole were painting and she noticed how he used his fingers to draw a circle, instead of a brush.
She had witnessed the “power of touch”, and it opened her eyes.
Wells pointed to another moment that deepened her understanding of the issues facing the disability community and where her fascination with braille was piqued.
In 2020, Wells was tasked with paint a fresco for Disability Rights Iowa. She spoke to staff, one of whom was Van Sant who served as an education attorney and relied on other attorneys to guide the design. Wells also met Karen Cunningham, librarian of the Media Education Center at the Iowa Department for the Blind. From Cunningham, Wells said she learned Braille and the hundreds of people Cunningham worked with who had different visual impairments.
From there, Wells began to experiment. She thought about translating parts of the ADA into Braille and print, painting the entire page and using her mood to dictate the color palette.
“When you paint on the surface, it looks very celestial because you have a convex and a concave,” Wells said of the raised dots. “So unless you push (the paint) really hard, it doesn’t go into the hollow.”
With each brushstroke, Wells shifted colors to create shadow effect, an appropriate narrative about light and dark. She also played around with some of the pages, cutting slits in them and stringing little battery-operated LED lights. Some lights flicker, while others stay still or dance to the sound. The end result is an army of Nightlights, which will then be displayed all around the Harkin Center.
“Think of how light enters the retina, like this little hole,” she said, adding that the concept became a “game changer” and shaped the rest of her work. In a broader sense, Wells said she sees it as an opportunity to break down the barrier where “people are afraid to touch (the) art” because they’ve been told not to or because they might “hurt” him.
“It’s a material that’s meant to be tested over and over again throughout its lifespan,” she continued.
Beyond that, Wells spoke about the stigma against people with disabilities. They are often told that their bodies are “not normal” due to their medical conditions, but she believes people’s bodies fluctuate throughout their lives and sees her artwork as a way to move these conversations forward.
Van Sant agreed with Wells and added that people with disabilities are considered people with limitations, as if they were a “responsible”.
“People with disabilities, whether they use a wheelchair, whether they’re blind or deaf or have a visible disability, always have this feeling that our bodies are seen as a risk,” said Van Sant, who has a disability that affects his balance and coordination. “We are considered dangerous, like we could break something or knock something over or not control our movements, and so it affects how we interact with many public spaces.”
This is why places like art museums can be intimidating for people with disabilities. They might “bump” a coin on a pedestal or “get too close,” he said.
But with Wells’ art, they’re meant to be held or cradled, perhaps even removed from the wall or moved around a room.
“Disability is not static,” he said. “Disability changes, and sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes things break and things tear, but it’s not always bad.”