Lise McKean talked with Reveca Torres about her collaboration with Mariam Pare and Tara Ahern on the Tres Fridas Project.The conversation took place at the Bridgeport Art Center gallery, where the Tres Fridas Project was exhibited in September 2019.

Lise: When we first met last November and spoke about the Tres Fridas Project, you were looking into the possibility of an exhibition here at the Bridgeport Art Center. Now, less than a year later, here we are at your show.

Reveca: Through the 3Arts Fellowship, a residency for artists with disabilities, I was able to apply to use 3Arts Projects, the foundation’s crowd-funding platform. I took that opportunity to see if I could raise enough money to put on the exhibition. Funds raised through the campaign covered gallery fees, printing and framing costs, installation, and ADA services to offer an inclusive experience to attendees of all abilities.

Lise: I read that you exceeded your fund-raising goal.

Reveca: We did. We reached our goal in four days and were able to continue to fundraise on the platform until the end of the month.

Lise: That’s tremendous support.

Reveca: It really was such a blessing to be able to have all our friends support the project and be so excited about it. We had over 200 RSVPs for the opening.

Dos Fridas

Lise: Let’s backtrack to the origin of your project. It started out as Dos Fridas. How about you talk about the project’s beginning and then we’ll get to this exhibition.

Reveca: Mariam Pare and I met online. We’re both women with spinal cord injuries. I’m paralyzed from the chest down. After meeting online, we started talking about how we had this connection with Frida Kahlo. We felt a connection to her work and her life as a woman and an artist with a disability.

We decided to recreate Dos Fridas, Frida Kahlo’s painting of two Fridas sitting next to each other holding hands. But we did it in our wheelchairs. We wanted our wheelchairs be present and visible. I made the costumes. Our friend, the photographer Tara Ahern—also a woman with a disability—photographed Mariam and me as Dos Fridas. Mariam then digitally manipulated the photograph to make the background look like the original painting.

We had so much fun doing Dos Fridas that we decided to do more. We then went on to do the Mona Lisa, Rosie the Riveter, The Last Supper, and other well-known images. Photographs of 16 different recreated works are in this show.

Lise: There are so many famous artworks to choose from. What’s your process for selecting the ones to recreate?

Girl with Pearl Earring

Reveca: We wanted to pick images that people are familiar with. We also wanted images that we would be able to have something to say about disabilities. So, we didn’t just select famous images. We’re really thoughtful about what we wanted to say with each image. For example, you’ll notice the text for Rosie the Riveter talks about the high unemployment rate for people with disabilities and the fact that programs that are supposed to help people get back to work sometimes get in the way of employment.

Each image is a way for us to start conversations that people might not be familiar with, to learn more about what it’s like to live with a disability, and to understand there are such things as disability art and disability culture.

Lise: Last time we talked, you told me how the 3Arts Fellowship supported you in taking courses at UIC in the Disabilities Studies program, where you were able to explore more deeply the phenomena of disability culture and disability art and aesthetics. Could you talk about how that experience impacts the Tres Fridas Project.

Reveca: I feel being part of that course and what I learned has really helped. In Tres Fridas we’re able to incorporate disability culture into the collaborative way we create the works. I created costumes, Mariam did the digital manipulation, and Tara took the photographs. We all use our skills to create each image. Every single image also was made with the help of caregivers or personal care attendants who were on hand to be our hands when we needed them.

Disability isn’t just the subject. It’s intertwined in everything. It’s in the way all the images were made and produced. This is something special. We were able to use art to share our voices. I feel that the UIC course helped me figure out how I can share that with people—that there is disability art and culture.

Old Guitarist

Lise: Did the collaborative aspect of the project extend to selecting the images together?

Reveca: We each came to the table with images that we wanted to do. Then we talked about them and why they are important to us. Some of them are more special to me and others are more special to Mariam or Tara. But overall, we agreed that these are important images to recreate and we had something to say about them.

Lise: You mentioned you made the costumes. I read in your bio that you have a background in costume design. Are there adaptive technologies for costume-making?

Reveca: Yes, but currently I’m not working in that field. I run Backbones, a nonprofit organization for people with spinal cord injuries. That takes up much my time. I really missed not designing costumes and Tres Fridas has been an opportunity for me to get back to it. I have special tools that have been adapted so I can cut fabric. My sewing machine is adapted as well. And when necessary I use the help of assistants.

Lise: So, the adaptive technologies make it possible to do much of the work yourself, but certain tasks require assistance.

Reveca: I ask different people to work with me depending on the task. Someone who is more meticulous might be better for a certain part of construction, and a more creative person for another aspect of the project.

Lise: Is there much crossover between your work at Backbones and art-making? Have you found ways to integrate them?

Reveca: When I started Backbones 10 years ago I was a little bit apprehensive because I thought I wouldn’t have enough time to do my artwork. At the beginning I was right. I didn’t have a lot of time because there’s a lot of that goes into starting a nonprofit. Eventually I was able to use my art background within the nonprofit to create awareness—using art through art exhibitions, film festivals, and other projects, and even creativity in social media has been very useful to create awareness about disabilities and spinal cord injuries. In fact, September is spinal cord injury awareness month. This exhibition is a great way to share that with people.

Dance Lesson

Lise: The word is getting out about Tres Fridas: I saw online announcements for the opening on The Visualist and the Reader.

Reveca: That’s awesome. We were on a WBEZ this morning. Univision and ABC are doing something on us.

Lise: Tres Fridas deserves all the attention it gets. It’s strong work with a thoughtful activist voice. The images you’ve selected to recreate are iconic. If people haven’t seen the specific ones you’re referencing, they’ve seen derivatives. The text that accompanies each image prompts viewers to reflect on the lived experiences of people with disabilities in non-disability culture. The text to one of the works refers to “inspiration porn.” That’s the first time I’ve seen that term. Can you tell me more about it?

Reveca: There’s a difference between someone calling you inspiring because you’re doing something inspiring and calling a person with a disability inspiring because they see that you went to the grocery store and they say something like, “Wow, you got out of bed today. That’s inspiring.” That’s insulting because it assumes that because we’re people with disabilities, we don’t live normal lives. There’s that difference. The Australian activist Stella Young started using “disability porn.” She talks about how she was called inspiring all the time when she was growing up. But she wasn’t inspiring at all. She didn’t do anything out of the ordinary. She just did things regular teenagers do.

People say those things to us because they’re not used to seeing people with disabilities out in the community. They see us and say things like, “Wow, I shouldn’t complain about my life.” What they’re actually saying when they see us and say that is “Your life must be so bad, but I got it good.” People think that they’re being nice by saying comments like that. It might feel good to them to call us inspiring. But in fact, what they’re saying is not nice. It’s emotional porn. Something distasteful and thoughtless. And it’s a way of distancing the other person too.

Lise: Have you had that experience yourself?

Reveca: Oh yeah, all the time. It happens very, very often.

Lise: How do you handle it?

Reveca: Some people get really, really frustrated or annoyed by it. For me it depends on the situation. Usually people are trying to be kind and I say thank-you. They just don’t know. Once I was at the mall and someone said to me, “Wow, it’s so great that you’re out of the house today.” As if that’s inspiring. All I said was, “That’s great that you’re out of your house, too.” She was kind of shocked. Maybe it gave her something to think about.

Lise: Is Tres Fridas an ongoing project? Do you plan to recreate more images?

Reveca: At this point I think we’re done recreating. We’ve been asked to exhibit at a couple other places, possibly Harper College and in Evanston. We’d love to do that. But we’re also working on the documentary. We have all the footage. After this exhibition I’ll be working to find the story I want to tell.

Lise: I imagine the making of each piece in Tres Fridas has a different story, and there are stories or themes that unify them. Crafting a narrative for a documentary takes vision and skill.

Reveca: We learned a lot from each of the models, who themselves are all artists and people with disabilities. They brought so much to the project. It was a great experience to learn from them. We started the project on our own, but so many people came together and have made it so much more than we initially thought.

Lise: It sounds like through Tres Fridas, you brought together a lot of artists and their supporters and created a community.

Reveca: We really have. Tres Fridas started with Mariam, Tara, and me and grew into something so much larger.

Lise McKean