IDAHO FALLS — A new mural in downtown Idaho Falls is drawing criticism from members of the deaf community and their supporters because the painting — which was done by a local artist who is not hearing impaired — incorrectly used American Sign Language.
The mural — titled “Look and Listen” and commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho in partnership with the Idaho Falls Downtown Development Corporation — is meant to depict four signs in American Sign Language but the signs were illustrated incorrectly.
Many members of the deaf community responded to a Downtown Development Corporation Facebook post of the mural, saying members of the deaf community should have been consulted on the project.
More than 170 Facebook users commented on the social media post. Most of the comments expressed disappointment, anger or confusion in response to the mural. Others said they appreciate the intent of the mural — that communication with and understanding of marginalized groups are important — and acknowledged the freedom of the artist to illustrate that message.
Ricky Taylor, 44, of Pocatello, a deaf video blogger who is fluent in ASL, said in a text message that the signs depicted in the mural are not ASL and that he considers the project cultural appropriation.
Taylor said the mural is “absolutely cringeworthy” and an attempt to translate the sign language results in “gibberish.”
“This is cultural appropriation, using (a) hearing artist to gain some kind of inspiration porn on Deaf’s natural language — American Sign Language,” Taylor said.
Kelly Sheridan, a local landscape artist and art teacher, painted the mural. The ACLU of Idaho and the Downtown Development Corporation accepted her mural proposal from a field of more than 40 applicants, according to Downtown Development Corporation’s executive director Catherine Smith.
The mural is one of three the ACLU of Idaho commissioned in the state. It’s also part of a larger effort in downtown Idaho Falls to fund public art projects.
Sheridan, who selected the subject matter for the project, told the Post Register on Oct. 2 — before she painted the mural — that it would “respond to the theme of protecting civil liberties” and “represent the unique and special qualities of the people who live in Idaho.”
The mural includes four signs, which were meant to read “ask,” “understand,” “listen” and “look.” Two signing hands frame a silhouette of Idaho on each side.
Kimberly Swanson, 45, of Pocatello, a freelance ASL interpreter, said the mural didn’t translate to ASL.
“I honestly couldn’t make sense of any of it,” she said.
Swanson said she understands Sheridan’s concept for the mural, but the representation of signs from a hearing artist’s perspective is likely what caused the miscommunication.
Sheridan said in a statement on Facebook that she consulted a friend who teaches ASL and did “supplemental research” for the mural.
“That being said, it’s a complex challenge to show hands in movement especially without the context of a face,” Sheridan said.
The Downtown Development Corporation responded to the social media criticism in a statement on Wednesday.
“Our project team and the local Idaho Falls Committee have reviewed these comments and we are seeking first to understand,” the statement said. “We are proactively reaching out to members of the Deaf Community and advocates and inviting them to participate in a conversation about the best way to proceed.”
The statement went on, “we are sorry for our insensitivity,” in offending “beloved members of both the hearing and the deaf communities.” The ACLU of Idaho reiterated these remarks in a statement on Thursday.
Smith told the Post Register that she stands behind Sheridan and that the artist’s intent was not to offend. The committee tasked with selecting the artist did not focus on the sensitive content of the mural, but instead focused on finding a local artist that could represent the Idaho Falls community, Smith said.
She added, “We stepped in something I didn’t understand.”
Taylor said the organizations should redo the mural, this time consulting the deaf community and preferably employing a deaf artist to paint it.
Their experience using ASL would qualify a deaf artist to create something more “beautiful and meaningful than any hearing artist could,” Taylor said.
There are currently no plans to alter the mural but that may change in the future, Smith said.