Artist with OI: Athena Cooper

Athena Cooper is a visual artist and creativity coach based in Calgary, Canada. Self- taught as an acrylic painter, Athena’s paintings are explorations of what it means to live an extraordinary, ordinary disabled life.

Painted portrait of Athena CooperPlease tell us a bit about yourself!

I’d describe myself as someone who has had a pretty wide-ranging set of experiences and adventures over the course of my life thus far. I was born in Vancouver, Canada and I trained as an animator once upon a time, but then spent about the first 15 years of my career working in web development and digital marketing. I left Vancouver for the prairie city of Calgary, (just east of the Rockies), back in 2018 and then left the corporate world a few years later, to strike out on my own as a visual artist and creativity coach. My husband and I love the life that we’re continuing to build in Calgary. We have an apartment downtown not far from the Bow River and take frequent walks through the neighbourhood’s green spaces with our two small dogs, Lucy and Lola. He and I also have a family practice together called the Tilted Windmills Healing Centre where we use creativity as a tool to help improve mental health and well-being.

I have moderate to severe OI, (likely Type 3 or 4 but I’ve never been tested). This means that IWedding photo do require a power wheelchair for mobility and safety, however, I am able to transfer independently and do things like stand on the footrests to do dishes or climb in and out of the bathtub.

I would say that the biggest impact on my daily life is just getting around. Calgary’s winter begins in October and there can be snow on the ground all the way into April. It’s prairie snow so it tends to be quite light and powdery, but it does build up over time. One of the reasons we live downtown is that the sidewalks get cleared of snow fairly quickly. I also use a door-to-door disability transit service to take me to and from my studio space during the week.

Can you describe how you are working? Are there particular challenges due to your disability?

Painting with cupsI’ve been painting with acrylics on and off since high school, however, I got more serious about my painting practice a little over ten years ago. I was struggling with my creativity at the time, and really wanted to get away from working on the computer which dominated my day job. I noticed that I was collecting a lot of images of Tiffany stained glass on Pinterest. I decided that I wanted to try doing paintings of stained glass lamps and panels in acrylics to learn more about why I found them so fascinating and beautiful. I’ve since moved on to painting a range of landscapes, still life and portraiture, but that sense of intense colour and fractured light of stained glass is still very much a signature of my artistic style.

OI impacts my art in the fact that I can’t paint for very long before I start to fatigue or the scoliosis in my lower back starts to bother me. I typically paint for about an hour and a half to two hours a day, which means that a single painting will take anywhere between a week to two weeks to complete.

I also paint on quite small canvases. I find I can’t manage anything much larger than 11×14″ or 12×12″ as it requires too much reach and I’ll fatigue even more quickly. For my current project, I’m working on nothing but 8×8″ canvases.

Tell us about your 2024 art exhibit and the “Love & Disability” online Survey!Painting People on a meadow

While OI has offered its health challenges, I felt these tended to dominate other people’s perceptions of my disability more than my own. They have these assumptions about my level of pain or my level of physical hardship that doesn’t feel true to me. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s this popular narrative about being inspirational, simply for living a life that includes disability that also doesn’t sit right.

Textbox relationships and OIThrough my art, I often explore the theme of what it means to live an ordinary disabled life. I don’t see my life as exceptional because of my disability, and this shows up in my paintings through my depictions of the everyday such as places in my neighbourhood or a string of espresso cups in a sunbeam. One of my favourite paintings, “Trusty Steed”, shows my view of my power wheelchair as I sit on the grass at a music festival. The wheelchair however has no more positive or negative emotional charge than a piece of furniture.

For my art exhibit, “The Extraordinary, Ordinary Nature of Interabled Love”, I will be highlighting the everyday moments in my relationship with my husband from our first meeting nine years ago all the way through the pandemic and new puppy adventures. I really struggled in my early adulthood to believe that I would ever find a romantic partner. Part of my insecurity stemmed from not seeing people who looked like me in relationships. The exhibit is in many ways the representation of an ordinary disabled love story that I wanted to see when I was younger.

Love and disabilityI also feel it’s important to extend this narrative beyond that of myself and my husband. This is why I had invited other couples where one or both partners identify as disabled to also contribute to the exhibit through the “Love & Disability” online survey. The survey was primarily made up of four open-ended questions in which participants were invited to talk about their relationship. Submitted photos and portions of their responses may be incorporated into the exhibit itself, which will be happening in Calgary in the late summer of 2024.

I know everyone’s love story is different and I really want to share all the ways that couples have found ways to support one another and thrive.

Photos are taken from Athena’s webpage.

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