Episode 22: Winnie Looby and Leah Schulz

In this episode, UVM faculty member and academics coordinator Winnie Looby interviews Vermont artist Leah Schulz.

Leah’s art directly references her experiences of multiple disabilities, as well as addressing and incorporating elements of who she was before she became disabled. Leah’s painting “Cyclical Choices” (2023) is part of an exhibit of work by Vermont artists with disabilities. The exhibit is being produced by Inclusive Arts Vermont, and is being shown at the UVM Davis Center, in Burlington Vermont, before being shown around the state, and then returning to Burlington for an extended residency with the UVM Center on Disability and Community Inclusion.

We’ll hear from Leah about her journey as an artist, as well as how disability shapes her art, and what it’s like to be back on the UVM campus — this time as an exhibitor, instead of a student.

“I have drawn a diagram of my pain cycle over and over again in my journal and it goes like this: something happens to induce more pain or symptoms, it sends me into a flare and my reaction is to panic, a feeling like a free fall, and then freeze up and curl into the fetal position. I would try and help myself, reaching out – seeing specialists, and researching possible diagnoses and treatments, but I was getting crushed over and over again by a cycle of uncontrolled symptoms.” –Leah Schulz

Dr. Winnie Looby: Okay, So welcome to Green Mountain Disability Stories. I’m Winnie Looby and I am a lecturer and program coordinator for the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion at UVM. And today we’re here with Leah Schulz, who’s a Vermont artist. Her work is being included in a recent exhibit of art by Vermont artists with disabilities through Inclusive Arts Vermont.

Leah, could you introduce yourself, please, and tell us who you are and what you do?

Leah Schulz: Right. Thank you for having me. I have been listening to the podcast and you guys have had some great guests, so I’m really honored to be here. Thank you.

So yes! My name is Leah Schulz and I am a watercolor, linocut, and acrylic artist. And I live in Williston, Vermont, with my husband and my cat, Norman.

I am actually a UVM grad. I got my MBA from UVM in 2015, and my background is in consulting and I also used to work for the [Vermont] Division of Aging and Independent Living (DAIL). So I have had a career working in the field of disability as well.

So I like to share my diagnoses, because you really never know when someone is searching for a diagnosis and they hear a diagnosis, especially of rare condition, so I like to share that information because I really never know when someone is looking for that. *laughs*

And so I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. Mast Cell Activation Syndrome and hyper adrenergic POTS and small fiber neuropathy, and erythromelalgia (That’s a tricky one.) And then I am currently studying to be a certified personal trainer and Reiki practitioner as well as wellness coach and certified nutrition counselor.

So: that work I hope to do with disabled people to help them regain their strength… as I have been doing for the last few years, so excited about that work as well.

Winnie: Yeah, it sounds great!  I love how your career path has kind of gone along with your personal path. So you’ve made some some — you’d call it lemonade out of lemons experiences, and then your, you know, generously giving of yourself to other folks. I think that’s incredible.

So I have some questions here and we can kind of follow them, and kind of just be organic about it. It’s up to you. So I’m curious how your disability and your art kind of interact. What’s that influence?

Leah: Yeah, I wouldn’t be an artist if I wasn’t disabled. I have my bachelors in Biology, and Peace and Justice Studies, and I have an MBA in Sustainable Entrepreneurship. So I  sort of used that side of my brain and thought that art was not something that I could do or that I was good at, or I had the time to be doing something so enjoyable, which is funny to say now. So when I became too sick to work five years ago, I suddenly couldn’t really use that other side of my brain. And art became my lifeline.

It was something that I could actually do to pass the days. And in those early days of getting sick, it was really what saved me, mentally, and brought new life and new perspective into my life? So I very much feel like it’s tied to my disability in a lot of ways. And then I learned that art is a lifeline to community because I was suddenly no longer on campus or in the work environment.

And my ability to share my art — online — was really my only connection to other people in a lot of ways.

And then I also found that art is… a radical act because it says, “I’m still here, I still exist, and I may not exist in person in these spaces, but here, me sharing these things? Is a connection that says I’m here.”

And when you tie your feelings, your expression, your experience of disability in your art? That becomes even more the political act. Because it makes people look, and see, and reminds them that disabled people exist.

Winnie: Wow. Yeah. I’m like you said, it’s a radical act. I definitely agree with that.

Prior to UVM, I did a lot of art school and all of that and I was kind of what my career path was going to be?

Both: *laughing*

Winnie: And then I really got into education. And I definitely did a little research, as a doc student, around artists and disability and the role that art played in their lives, right?

And they all mentioned the community piece.

They all mentioned like the, personal kind of self-care piece. So I think that’s fantastic, where you put that. Awesome.

So I’m curious how… so can you tell us a little bit about your piece that’s going to be in the show with Inclusive Arts?

Leah: The theme is cycles. Yeah. Someone sent me the prompt and said, “You know, I think you should you should consider this opportunity.”

And I read the prompt and pretty much immediately started sketching. I think the idea of cycles is something that I have been really in the depths of over the last few years, and in particular the pain cycle.

I was fortunate to work with a provider that helped me understand sort of the concept of a wave. So my painting is of a diving board sort of in the sky and this little figure dives off the diving board and sort of free falls and then tries to come together and get into a dive position and then dives into an ocean.

A painting of tiny pink figures diving into a deep blue sea, through cotton candy clouds.
“Cyclical Choices” (2023), by Leah Schulz. Displayed at the UVM Davis Center, Burlington VT.


In the ocean, they split off in three different directions. One goes straight down to the bottom and they sink into sort of a meditative pose. Another direction they go is they ride that wave and they come up to the surface and they look around, and then they turn and they swim and try and ride that wave.

And then the third is they turn and they climb and they climb back up the ladder and start ready to get back into that diving position.

And so my piece is called “Cyclical Choices” and is really about that diagram that I have drawn over and over, over the last few years of saying, “Okay, we’ve got these symptoms. I feel like I’m in freefall because I have these feelings about it, I have these tools, and how can I get into that position of addressing those patterns?”

And then I work through some of those and then more things come up and how do I address those? And sometimes you sink to the bottom of that a sort of lived there for a little while, and sometimes you can resurface and ride it out and get out of that pain cycle. And sometimes you just have to go back up and climb the ladder and do it all over again the next day.

So cyclical choices is something that we all do every day, whether it’s emotions or pain or just the choices that we make. So I felt like it was very deeply personal to me, but also very relatable that life is full of cyclical choices and what we do with them. But what I hope people can take from it is knowing that whether you’re sinking to the bottom or going right back through that cycle again? That that is okay. And that there are tools that can help you through that cycle and maybe out and into… just another series of cycles.

And it really helped me to make it through some really hard things in the last few years.

Winnie: Yeah. Yeah. I love that. I love that. I think I got advice to, you know, “just keep swimming”.

Leah: Yes, exactly. I love swimming, so I have definitely been using that motto for for a long time. And whether the the seas are calm or not to just keep swimming is definitely a good motto to have.

Winnie: Another one that may or may not resonate with you, another one I’ve heard is: “Imagine an ocean. There’s a storm. It’s rough, but if you go down far enough, like kind of inside… it’s calm, right? You can always find calm within all the chaos.

Leah: Yeah, exactly. And that’s why the the person at the bottom, you know, isn’t drowning. They’re calm. They’re in a meditative sort of Zen place because there’s perspective there, too, and there’s calm and– you know, actually in the disabled community, there’s the idea of “Crip Time” and regaining that name.

And I think of Crip Time as that space at the bottom where you’re just in it, where you’re, you know, recovering from something, and time and space exist in a different way. And you’re at the bottom of the pool or the ocean and sort of watching everything happening outside of you. But what’s happening inside of you is just totally different.

Winnie: Yeah, Is that I’ve heard of that. Is it Petra Kuppers who talks about that, Crip Time, or…? I don’t know the origin of it.

Leah: Ooh. I know that someone was doing a master’s thesis on it and interviewed me on my experience of Crip Time, but she probably had that in her paper. But I just know it from just sort of like the experience of making friends online and using that that term and knowing that it’s reclaimed in the disabled community. Because that that term definitely has some negative connotations. But yeah, that’s good to know. I should read about that, yeah.

Winnie: Yeah. Petra Kuppers, she is — I can’t remember her nationality I think it’s British or Australian — but she’s also a poet and kind of a movement artist. And she does this kind of workshop with people and one of her readings that I assign in one of my classes is actually called Crip Time. In it, she talks about how she gives some description of it in her workshops right, where it’s asking people to slow down. Like what? You don’t have to go fast. Why are you going fast?

It’s like our culture wants you to churn, and move and be “productive”. (*laughs* I hate that word.) Be productive,and be fast at it. Right? Whereas, you know, if your body can’t do that, right? Or it’s hard for your body to do that, you have to give yourself permission to take the time that you need.

Leah: Right.

Winnie: And then you can make those choices, I think is how that connects.

Leah: Absolutely. Yeah. I learned that from the author Katherine May. She talks about that in her book Wintering. I so appreciated the idea of making a life that works for you instead of against you? And I think that that is so much of the last few years for me is carving that out — and art being a large part of that.

Winnie: That’s very empowering, right? To just be in control of what you want and how you need things to be, right, long term.

Oh, I was curious about this! inclusive Arts Vermont has put a lot of effort into accessibility for the exhibition itself, including providing verbal descriptions for each piece of art. So when you wrote a description of your painting, what was it like for you to think about how to describe your art to an audience in this way?

Leah: Yeah, I’m glad I had the practice because I just had to describe it here, so it was helpful! *laughs*

I appreciated that they offered a workshop sort of office hours to try and work that out. So I attended that and it was great to hear about how other people experience art and the use of the verbal descriptions in that way. And it was helpful too, because I’ve been trying to make a real effort to use image descriptions on social media with my art? So to get a perspective of the do’s and don’ts of that? And there’s some great resources out there for that. And I think it’s just a really simple way that, you know, you can show inclusivity and be an ally.

And doing that on social media is just a really quick way and simple way to show support for different populations. So I was appreciative of it for this practice, but also applying it to my work, as well.

Winnie: So as we’re recording this, the CYCLES exhibit is just about to open as a residency on the University of Vermont campus. What do you hope the University community gets out of the exhibit and your art in particular?

Leah: I think a couple of things. I think the idea of being back on campus in this way is is important to me. Because I haven’t been able to participate in alumni events or things like that in the last few years. So having a presence on campus in that way is important to me. And maybe if someone, you know, reads my bio and relates to my painting, I think… is something that I hope will stay with someone. To know that disability can happen to anyone at any time.

And being… hm. Just: how we exist in places. I think it matters and how we accommodate and support people in providing opportunities to connect in different ways.

I really appreciate that UVM is hosting this exhibit and giving people an opportunity to participate in UVM culture and, and engage with students in a way is really, really great.

And then I also hope that if some student is struggling with their health — as I did when I was a college student — that they can see themselves in the art in the entire exhibit. And see how other people have made their access needs work. And how other people have made accommodations and have had successful careers, and understand that there’s a future for them out there.

Yeah. So I’m excited to see how students engage with the exhibit.

Winnie:  I think we have a new student group on campus, the UVM Disabled Students Union. I think they started maybe last year and the year before. I think having a disability, people’s experience showcased in this way and such a prominent way is just so important, especially for, you know, your modeling. It feels like you’re modeling how to be, right? How to find what works for you. That here’s your life in this way for a while, but then this thing changes and our broader culture tells you that “I must be thoughtful like that”.

But the broader culture in a lot of ways also gives you the message that somehow you’re not a person anymore. Right? That’s you’re supposed to really have people feel sorry for you, you know?

But all the artists here are going to be modeling: how do you take that theme? Anybody could join the club at any point, right? How do you take that and then move on and find or rediscover something that is really valuable to you in the long run, right? Like some some hidden talents and hidden beauty that you have. Looking at it as kind of, you know, it’s a journey. It’s not maybe a very easy journey, but it is one. And that you have the power to make choices and find people who can be mentors to you in some kind of way? Even if it’s just an art show?

So I think it’s really powerful that it’s here. I think there was a similar one maybe five years ago, but it was like at the Flynn — a little teeny Flynn exhibition space over there.

And so I saw that it’s coming to UVM and I thought, “So cool!” I’m just yeah, I love it.

Leah: Yeah. I really appreciate that. It’s the messages that we are given about what disability means and what it really can exist as, they are so different. And yes, there are definitely moments that are definitely not easy, but it really for me has given me a chance to evaluate what’s really important to me and how I can pursue that.

Winnie: Yeah. That’s a good point, yeah. I think in this last few years with the pandemic, a lot of folks are kind of at time to think about what they really want to be doing or am I getting what I need out of my environment? What other relationships have I really cultivated?

So I had one last question. What advice do you have for other artists who are maybe in earlier stage of their career?

Leah: I really I’m still in the very early phases of this. This is my first exhibit and I don’t have like a site up or anything for anyone to purchase. So I’m really just starting out in the last few months of making this official have just been practicing a lot until then.

So for people that are in an earlier stage than I am, I would just say: remember what you loved to do as a kid. I remember an art class where we did linocutting and I just remember loving it. And so that was the first thing that I picked up and I just find so much peace and enjoyment in it.

And it’s scary to share on social media, but the feedback that I’ve had is just people being impressed that I did it.

That I picked it up and I did it and I shared it. And there’s so many people that have said: “I wish I could do that.”

And I think that that’s something that I used to think for sure.

But if you have that desire, just do it. And you really never know where it will take you. *laughs*

So yeah, I think the weirder, the sillier the better. And that’s really what people respond to the most.

Winnie: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Oh, that’s awesome. That’s awesome. I agree. I had a short little story, about me.

Years and years ago, I was going through a health thing of my own and I had this idea to work on puppets.

I remembered loving The Muppet Show and loving Sesame Street, loving marionettes. And those things sometimes freak people out a lot. But yeah. *laughs*  And so I started making them and someone told me that like, you know, it’s important to find play as an adult, isn’t it?

Leah: So important. Yeah.

Winnie: It’s a boy and something that’s just it feels like, you know, you don’t really care how it comes out. You’re just doing it for your own satisfaction.

Leah: Yeah, it’s so true. Yeah. I think so much of disability and chronic health things is just about survival. At the beginning, you really can’t play; you’re in survival. So play becomes so important because it’s really an indication, like you that you’re doing okay. And yeah, I love that. Puppets are great.

Both: *laugh*

Leah: That sounds really fun. I think I’m going to start puppets sometime.

Winnie: It was so great to get to talk to you. I appreciate that you wanted to participate, and answer all these questions, and I just really appreciate it a lot.

Leah: Thank you. I appreciate it, too. It’s it’s really great. And I have a new favorite podcast to listen to. So it’s been really fun to be involved. Thank you.

More of Leah’s art can be found on her Instagram account: @presence_works.

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