When an artist tells a story, it comes from their soul. True ability is measured by the passion poured out onto the canvas of life.
For artist and digital accessibility consultant Jesse Shirek, artwork and life are parallel. The narrative is always ahead, just out of reach in a constant state of flux.
“The creative process to me is like exploring a different world,” Shirek says. “So, try to detach from what I’m seeing or the way that I see the world, it’s about a different space.”
With works to be included in the “Artist First” exhibition at Moorhead’s Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., starting this weekend, Shirek will join nearly a dozen other artists displaying a dynamic combination of media including oils, tapestry, charcoal, photography and poetry.
Accessibility advocates from Arts Access for All conceived of the project with a single mission in mind — to provide local artists with disabilities a forum to demonstrate their talents. The resulting space allows creators and observers alike to explore new and sometimes distant worlds.
Inside the familiar warmth of his art-filled home, Shirek explains his abstract and semi-representational paintings. While he faces unique challenges as a result of his limited eyesight, he approaches his work and hobbies with a problem-solving tact that is quintessentially human.
“I’m the only person who’s going to see it the way I see it,” says Shirek about his works like “Repair,” a whirling combination of layered colors. “The disability piece of it is always there and creates this interesting dynamic of how does what I’m taking in really look like, or how does what I’m creating really look?”
Shirek studied educational psychology and visual art at the University of Minnesota before moving back to North Dakota for work. His daily tasks are a mix of assistive technology instruction and accessible web design consulting. He also serves as the president of the National Federation of the Blind in North Dakota.
He’s married to Arts Access for All’s lead accessibility consultant, Sherry Shirek who also lives with blindness. Together and tangentially, they strive to offer access and accommodation to people with disabilities.
Another artist with work to be included in the exhibition is Wachozhuga (Steve Smith), of Forest Lake, Minn. His work explores the tension of living between two opposing cultures of the Ho Chunk or Winnebago and Western cultures.
“My intent is to share a bit of what it is like to experience the tension and to elicit tension within the viewer in presenting them with an opportunity to see something different,” Smith says. “I also see my artwork as a prayer of sorts, a way of honoring those things and beings I have encountered that have brought me joy or learning.”
These prayers within his artwork are windows into foundational relationships, such as with “Choka Melvin,” and tie back to his cultural roots with traditional Native imagery.
Looking for possibilities in his everyday life, Smith looks to other artists living with disabilities for messages of hope.
“I met an artist named Michael Naranjo who was blinded by an explosion in Vietnam,” Smith explains about the New Mexico-based Native artist. “He came back and after his rehabilitation, he started to sculpt and his ‘disability’ became part of his gift. That’s the kind of stuff that excites me.”
Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the University of Minnesota before going back to school for psychology. When he was asked in an entrance interview to the psychology program about his qualifications to work in the field, he responded, “I see possibilities everywhere.” He was accepted and went on to receive a master’s and subsequent doctorate in clinical psychology.
“We’re all humans and we’re not defined by our disability,” Smith concludes.
Arts Access for All began in 2014 through an access grant from VSA Minnesota to form a task force to evaluate the needs in the arts for people with disabilities. This project was made possible in part by a grant from the Lake Region Arts Council, made available through a state legislative appropriation.
“Artist First” will be fully accessible, including audio descriptions, to offer a more seamless experience for everyone. For more information about accessibility at the Hjemkomst Center, visit hcscconline.org/accessibility–accommodations.html.
What: “Artist First,” an exhibition from Arts Access for All
When: On display Saturday, Feb. 8, through March 31
Where: Hjemkomst Center, 202 First Ave. N., Moorhead
Info: Free public reception will be held at 1 p.m. Feb. 8
This article is part of a content partnership with the Fargo Forum and appeared in print on Monday February 3, 2019.