There is no denying that Monique Harris is an artist, first and foremost. I came across her artwork featured at Actual Café a few weeks ago, and I’m lucky I did. Waiting for my lunch, I found my eye drawn to a framed piece on the wall before me, entitled “Grey Mist.” What I thought would be an image of inert and enshrouding fog, judging by its title, was instead a vibrant and an expressive mass, with an eddying green, yellow, and red swirl at its center. It was a revelation of vitality.

That sense of revealed vitality is alive throughout the work of Harris and in the artist herself. Harris, who lives in Emeryville and works in Oakland, is an artist who happens to be living with a disability: cerebral palsy. Hers is a story of revealed vitality.

“I do digital art, us[ing] Adobe Photoshop,” shares Harris. “I take pictures apart and use the separate components. My friend takes pictures for me and I manipulate them. I change them around [through] different colors, shapes, and shades.” Harris draws her inspiration from the natural world. Indeed, “Grey Mist” was a part of Actual Café’s Spring: Nature Redesigned local art show.

Harris compellingly deforms and then re-forms the contours, colors, and textures found in the natural world through her art. She defines her work as abstract art. “My work starts as a concept in my mind,” her artist statement reads, “and at times will take form in a whole different way by the time I get that first image put on the canvas.” In particular, the statement continues, “[s]hapes and colors, how they intermingle and compliment each other, seem to stimulate my creative energy. At times a completed piece of work will only contain shapes that seem to draw out a particular feeling or emotion. But I do love to find just the right image and then project it in various ways to make a statement.”

Without much use of her hands, Harris achieves her expressive statements through a head wand affixed to a helmet, which she has been wielding for thirty years. The persistent use of the helmet-head wand apparatus has taken its toll, though, injuring her neck. Recently, she has been able to purchase eye tracking or eye gaze technology and has begun to learn how to use this innovative technology to make her art.

Eye-tracking technology will enable Harris to navigate on her computer with only the movement of her eyes. Focusing at a point on the screen with her eyes will move her mouse to that point. The technology works by using infrared light that reflects off of the user’s eye to determine where that eye is looking. This technology is a boon to those like Harris who have limited mobility and she is excited to use it to advance her work.

Harris has been enjoying great professional success in recent months, with her artwork on display at a number of venues in Oakland and elsewhere. Photo by Anna Vignet.

Harris has been enjoying great professional success in recent months, with her artwork on display at a number of venues in Oakland and elsewhere. Photo by Anna Vignet.

That work includes creating and selling her art as prints and notecards as well as creating and selling scarves that she paints with the aid of her head wand. In addition, being able to express herself through art in these ways spurred Harris to develop a graphic art-based business focused on self-expression and communication. “I love to help people express themselves,” says Harris.

Her company, Communication at Ease is, according to its Facebook page, “dedicated to designing communication boards that help speech-challenged children, young adults, adults, and elders interact with their world.” The company is built on the simple idea that “people who have difficulty speaking need comfortable and effective ways to communicate with others.” Communication at Ease is supported by the Cornerstone program, “a small business incubator for self-employed entrepreneurs,” at the Cerebral Palsy Center for the Bay Area, located in Oakland.

For one project, Harris has been commissioned by Alameda County to design a resource book to be used in the county’s disaster shelters. The book, Harris explains, is “so that they (first responders and those assisting in disasters) can communicate more freely with people with disabilities.” First responders and people with disabilities will be able to communicate with each other more effectively by pointing to panels of key emergency questions alongside possible answers presented in the form of pictures.

It is hard not to see the world through Harris’s keen eyes when you engage her work, creative process, and entrepreneurial spirit. And that is what she hopes. In a poem entitled “Eyes,” Harris asks people to see beyond disabilities and, in so doing, gain greater sight and insight. “Then,” she writes, “we could see the world as yellow as the sun / and as green as the grass. / Come see the world as I do.”

If you too would like to see more of Harris’s work, you can view select pieces at Café 3016 in Oakland and at Farley’s on 65th in Emeryville during the month of July. You can also contact Harris at her business, Communication at Ease, at 4500 Lincoln Avenue in Oakland, (510) 531-3323.

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2 Responses

  1. doug galloway

    congratulations on you brake through in this important field of the arts.
    Doug G.
    Ont. Canada


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