Partnership Spotlight: American Sign Language – English Interpretation Program

Block Museum Student Associate Mayán Alvarado-Goldberg (Major Neuroscience and Minors Global Health and Native American and Indigenous Studies ’24) shares a personal account of an unexpected partnership this year that lead to an extraordinary alignment of languages, family, and culture.

Throughout the fall and spring quarters of 2022, a number of members of the Block Museum Student Associate Program (BMSA) elected to present community Art Talks – special conversations on artworks from The Block Collection discussing the artists and central themes of the works. In early March, the Block Museum was given the unique opportunity to partner with the La Guardia Community College American Sign Language (ASL)-English Interpretation Program (AEIP) in a joint-learning project to combine a BMSA Art Talk with live interpretation for AEIP students. AEIP is a two-year academic program that prepares selected individuals who are fluent in ASL to become ASL-English interpreters, with a special focus on interpreting in educational settings.

Deb Cates, a grant-sponsored instructor for AEIP, taught an interpreting class in which one student was specifically interested in ASL interpretation through a museum lens. After searching for programming that would provide an atmosphere for her student to learn more about museum environments and how to interpret themes, ideas, and presentations within those contexts. Cates reached out to the Block. Because of my personal connection to American Sign Language, I had the privilege of presenting the Art Talk to Cates and her class.

For my entire life, my family has been using ASL, largely because I have two Deaf aunts whose form of communication is American Sign Language. Learning ASL growing up provided me not only with a way to connect with my aunts but also a way to connect with the larger Deaf community through learning about Deaf culture and practices. When I was presented with the opportunity to give an Art Talk to the AEIP class, I was ecstatic! Not only could this Art Talk be a form of mutual learning for me as a BMSA and for Cates’ students, but because it was on Zoom and provided interpretation, my family in Los Angeles could also be present and experience my Art Talks for the first time. This was especially exciting for my aunts who self-identify as Deaf artists.

Chris Pappan (Kaw, Osage, Cheyenne River Sioux, born 1971), Of White Bread and Miracles (Gett’n Down) 2020. Graphite, ink, map collage, and gold leaf on embossed 1924 Evanston municipal ledger. Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University, purchase funds provided by the Andra S. and Irwin Press Collections Fund. 2021.10.2.

To present the Art Talk, I wanted to choose an art piece that I felt captured many of the themes that we have explored as BMSA students: culture, identity medium, and personal connections. For me, that piece was Chris Pappan’s Of White Bread and Miracles, Gettin’ Down. Before the Art Talk, the Block Museum’s Erin Northington, Associate Director of Campus and Community Engagement, and I met with Cates to discuss specific strategies for presenting the art talk to a multilingual audience. Of particular importance was goal-driven interpreting which specifically highlights what the Art Talk is meant to accomplish, such as open dialogues and observation-based discussions.

On the day of the Art Talk, I virtually presented Chis Pappan’s piece to Dr. Cates, Erin, and members of my family who use both English and ASL. One of Cate’s students in his final year of interpreting training translated the Art Talk for the audience. It felt very unifying to be able to see my presentation translated so beautifully and the conversations that followed were rich in reflections and questions about the art. I admired how Cates’s student used ASL to represent the layers in the artwork and how the audience posed follow-up questions not only to me but also to each other.

Previously, another Student Associate and I had met directly with artist Chris Pappan to discuss his artwork and the specific questions he would like to pose to audiences as an Indigenous artist. For Pappan, questions about how Indigenous peoples are represented in the media are crucial to this work. I kept this in mind during my facilitation and the artist’s question led to a lively discussion and sharing of personal experiences. The Art Talk culminated with a reminder of the necessary steps to take to honor and uplift the presence of Indigenous communities in Evanston and beyond.

In reflection on the talk, Cates said, “When I reached out to Erin to ask if we could interpret one of their public talks, I was not expecting her to respond with an offer to set up a private event. Erin’s connection with Mayán was kismet. I am so thankful for Erin’s and Mayán’s willingness to collaborate with me on this mutually beneficial experience, and thrilled that Mayán’s family was able to participate as a result!”

The BMSA art talk with AEIP was a beautiful meshing of cultures, languages, and interests and proved to be a moving and powerful learning experience for all.

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