On Tuesday, Sept. 26, members of the University of Maine community gathered in Williams Hall to join a live Zoom featuring internationally-known Deaf artist, Nancy Rourke. Rourke had an in-person presentation at the University of Southern Maine (USM), which was sponsored by the USM ASL Club and Maine Deaf Arts.
The month of September is designated as National Deaf Awareness Month. Tuesday’s discussion about Rourke’s life experiences as a Deaf indigenous individual and artist was one of many opportunities advertised by the Yarmouth-based Maine Association of the Deaf as part of its Deaf Culture Week.
Rourke has created thousands of paintings throughout her life after her parents recognized her talent for art at just six years old, which was the same age she was medically declared Deaf.
Since 2009, Rourke has created art in the styles of De’Via and Surdism, specializing in oil painting. Rourke signed the explanation of De’Via (Deaf View/Image Art) as an art movement based on the deaf experience… “De’Via is not an organization that you can join as a member.”
“There’s nothing to join. And we are not angry artists…It’s more like truth-telling…We want you to see the authenticity of our experience, and everything on our canvas has a meaning behind it,” said Rourke.
Rourke noted that De’Via differs from the more general category of Deaf art because the latter is made by a Deaf artist, plain and simple.
There’s no theme necessarily, and their deafness is not involved in their art.
Surdism, originally created by French Deafblind artist and activist Arnaud Balard in 2009, is similar in its focus on the Deaf experience, but it expands to many other genres, including film, theater and literature.
In addition to kickstarting the Surdism movement, Balard designed the Deaf Flag, which was officially approved by the World Federation of the Deaf at its XXI General Assembly last July. According to Rourke, “The flag includes the hand, which is included in the sign for signing. The dark blue indicates Deafhood. The gold indicates our hope for the future. And the turquoise…is unity.”
Rourke’s own palette is also limited to three colors: red, yellow and blue. Red is seen as a color of power, yellow is seen as looking forward to the future and blue represents a lived experience of oppression and trauma.
She is currently working on her fifth art book focusing on the Native Deaf experience of oppression. Regarding her decision to focus on this topic when creating her new artwork, Rourke signed, “I think I’ve been holding this in for a long time. I have not paid attention to this nagging feeling that I’ve had about incorporating the Deaf Native experience, and I think it is time to express this.”
The De’Via and Surdism art movements are both committed to social justice and aim to bridge the gap between Deaf people and the public. Rourke is currently in the outline phase of a 28-part mural for the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf in Falmouth, Maine, which will showcase these ideals and important aspects of Deaf culture in the state of Maine.
When asked what the next 15 years will look like, Rourke expressed her interest in seeing videos and filmmaking about Deaf artists, signing, “I’d love to see their experiences and what their lives are like on a daily basis…As a next layer of visual communication, filming deaf artists, their work, their cultures and their expressions…I think that’s where I would go next.”
As for her own work, Rourke intends to continue passionately expressing her experience as a Native Deaf woman through oil painting for years to come.
To view or purchase Nancy Rourke’s artwork, view her website at https://www.nancyrourke.com/. To get involved or learn more about the mission of the University of Maine’s American Sign Language Club, visit