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Family, Land, and Deafness

May 22, 2017 @ 5:30 pm - July 28, 2017 @ 7:00 pm

An exhibition by Joanna Welborn

Curated by Kathy Hudson

Special thanks to Jason Doty and the John Hope Franklin Center.


School for the Deaf

My Deaf father and hearing mother met at the NC School for the Deaf in Morganton in 1968. My mom was a 22-year-old student teacher and my dad was working as a supervisor in the high school boys dorm. They spent their careers working at the school until they retired a few years ago, which meant that my sister and I kind of grew up on the campus. We made hideouts under the basketball bleachers, did our homework after school in our mom’s English classroom, had birthday parties in the Scout cabin, and learned to drive in the empty parking lots on weekends.

I came back to the school last year as an adult to experience Deaf spaces more fully and to get an idea of what it would be like to be a student who lived at the school, immersed in Deaf culture and signing ASL (American Sign Language). I spent time with three high school students – Vincent, Haley, and Cheyenne – in their classes, their dorms, hanging out after school in the library or on the track field, and at their prom. Before I started the project I told people I wanted to make photographs to show that these Deaf students were no different than any other high school student anywhere in the U.S. And that turned out to be mostly true. They gossiped in the hallways, worked on homework, passed bored hours watching Youtube videos, spent way too much time on their phones, and got frustrated when their basketball game wasn’t on point.

What I did see that’s different: hearing aids and cochlear implants tucked behind ears; video phones mounted in common spaces; flashing lights in the hallways and classrooms to signal class changes; English class taught as a foreign, or second, language; hearing teachers and staff who sign at all times to ensure language access for the students and Deaf staff, and a prom that featured a Deaf DJ who turned up the bass for more vibration.

Being in the school made me appreciate the shift the school has made to embracing Deaf culture and supporting students in an environment that affirms their language, their community, and their independence.

Special thanks to Archie and Mary Jo Johnson for their assistance with this project. Video translation by Danette Bridges, Haley Futral, Jana Lollis, Adaie Young, and Mary Jo Johnson.


Windy Gap Rd

Windy Gap Road winds straight up Little Brushy mountain, dense forest on all sides until you crest the top of the little mountain and feel like you’re driving right into the sky. Follow the road a short ways until it crosses Cling Johnson Road, named for my great-grandfather, and you’ll hit the Johnson homestead: a medium-sized ranch house built in 1973 when the small two-story clapboard house my grandfather built burned to the ground in an electrical fire. My grandmother, Evelyn, lives alone here, but not alone, with my uncle Harold, aunt Melba, cousin Bryan and his wife Pamela up the gravel road in two side-by-side trailers on the hill. Still, there’s a lonesome-ness, a quiet. My grandmother, Bryan, and Pamela are hearing but Harold and Melba are Deaf. So is my dad, who lives an hour away. They communicate using a family sign language, which they jokingly call “Johnson Family Sign,” though everyone but my grandma knows American Sign Language too.
Harold comes down in the mornings to light Grandma’s wood stove. Those are the sounds you hear: the spit and crackle of the fire being poked, the clang of the metal stove door closing, slippers shuffling on the kitchen linoleum, fork against bowl beating an egg, whispered half-speech alongside the signing, a quick stomping of the foot to draw attention.

It wasn’t always this quiet. There were more houses dotting the fields. There were cows, mules, pigs, chickens, rabbits, ducks, and guinea hens. There were brothers, sisters, parents, in-laws, kids roaming. About half were Deaf, half weren’t. But they all knew how to sign the family sign language so there wasn’t an us and them. It was just family. There were more bodies, so there was more sound, more movement: fields plowed, animals tended, gardens planted, roads trudged up and down. There were corn-husking parties and afternoon breaks at the swimming hole and porch sitting in the twilight. There was drinking, too, and still-watching, out deep in the woods. That’s a part of my family history– moonshining, just like everyone else in Wilkes County at that time, the only way a small farmer could bring in any money at all.

Now, though, it’s just the five of them holding down the top of the mountain. It’s still and a little lonely. It’s like a place missing itself from a long time ago, the people and the animals and the way it used to be.


May 22, 2017 @ 5:30 pm
July 28, 2017 @ 7:00 pm
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Jason Doty
919 668 1921


John Hope Franklin Center Gallery
2204 Erwin Rd.
Durham, NC 27708 United States
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