Michelle Stevens, an art aficionado since childhood, has had plenty of experience looking up in galleries and exhibits. Born with achondroplasia, a form of dwarfism, the 22-year-old graphic design student stands 4 feet tall. The angled view of art hung at 5-plus feet gives her a different perspective from other passersby, but, she said, “I can’t always see as much as I would like.”
Not so with Stevens’ new exhibit, “In a World Full of Little People,” on display at the Harold B. Lee Library’s Gallery on Five through April 27. Walk into the gallery and on your left you’ll see one piece hanging where you’d expect: eye level. Red, gold and orange squares float on a white background, encased in a square black frame. The 19 other pieces — geometric prints, black and white abstracts, a quirky and colorful collage — hang just under 4 feet off the ground.
Having her own exhibit, with pieces hung at her eye level (save for the anomaly hung at a traditional height, to emphasize the difference), feels “empowering,” Stevens said, and she hopes her passion project “helps people see through my eyes.”
Her atypical hanging approach “really puts into perspective her point of view and makes us walk in her shoes for a moment,” said Roland Thompson, an adjunct design faculty member who taught one of Stevens’ graphic design courses. Beyond the hanging height, he added, “the feeling and concept of her work stands out: she has a strong artistic voice.”
The pieces she chose to display represent a range of emotions from her past and present. The collage — complete with pancakes, throwback toys and a rotary phone — reflects her nostalgia for a grandmother she lost. To its right is a rectangle print with splattered shades of burgundy and red, created when she filled glass Coke bottles with paint and smashed them on her canvas.
The emotions for that one, she acknowledged, “are hard for me to talk about.” But because art can be “a language of its own,” she hopes the exhibit can help her communicate with viewers “in ways that they might not be able to understand otherwise and that maybe I can only express through art.”
The youngest of three children, Stevens is the only little person in her family. Living with dwarfism has been a challenge primarily, she said, because people around her assume she’s somehow different: incapable of doing things average-sized people can do. But, she said, “we can; we just do them differently.” Her loves include swimming, camping, reading. And art. She currently teaches art to local children and hopes to continue teaching and creating in various capacities after graduating.
In the meantime, what she hopes people understand about her is the same takeaway she hopes people leave her exhibit with. “Each person sees the world a little bit differently, and I think art is kind of representative of people. When people see this, I want them to realize that beauty comes in a lot of different forms.”