© 2023 by Emma Dei.

Totems and Familiars


The body we are born into is one of the single most powerful determinants of who we will be.  We may struggle against that shape of our body, or embody it with unexpected potential.  The body is the vessel that carries us into our encounters with the world.  Through it, we observe our world and it begins to perceive us, in a lifelong war-dance of inner and outer perspectives.  Depictions of the body in figurative art allow us to see the interplay between the structure of a body and the contours of a life.


The conventions of portraiture are based on venerable attitudes about acceptable and unacceptable bodies.  Traditional portraiture determines who is worthy of being painted, or sculpted, or photographed. Portraits document what we deem valuable.  I began to create portraits of unconventional subjects in order to cultivate my own sense of beauty, importance and visual pleasure. 


For fifteen years, I have primarily made images of people with disabilities.  For people with visible disabilities, the conflict between inside and outside can be intensely problematic.  All people experience this dissonance to some degree; but if one inhabits a socially challenged body, it virtually guarantees a collision between appearance and truth. Disability offers us a magnifying glass on a universal struggle. 


Bodily impairment is one route towards an understanding of social isolation and victimization through prejudice. Yet we must put disability in context of the gauntlet that every human must learn to endure. I have learned so much in working with people who are able to bring tremendous creativity to bear in times of darkness.  Whether my subject is a person with or without impairments, all of my work is concerned with the mystery of survival.


I believe that when we are under extreme stress (and this can include joy as well as sorrow) we reach for internal images that help us remember who we are, to make sense of our experience, and to help stabilize our inner world when it is knocked off its axis. Totems and Familiars is centered on interviews in which I asked people to think about those images and their roles in developing and protecting their private selves.


I began by thinking about metaphor and simile. These aspects of language lend themselves well to thinking about survival. Metaphors act as bridges from one state to another, offering a transmutation into and identification with the other.  A child’s earliest literature is full of metaphoric creatures; dressed-up animals, talking teapots and trains that invite her to imagine her self as something entirely different.  Each bright page opens into new possibility. The encounter with the alien is lets her locate her own boundaries. As the child learns to dissolve the boundary between states of being, he or she builds a verbal and visual vocabulary for both the conscious and unconscious mind.


I wanted to limit the kind of bridge states in this project, while focusing on the kinds of metaphors that arise in children’s literature. I chose the following three categories when asking the participants of Totems and Familiars to tell me about the important imagery that helped them through troubled times. 


1. AN ANIMAL FAMILIAR. This is in the tradition of a witch’s familiar, a creature that provides secret knowledge of the super/natural world, or animal spirit guide.  This type of symbol is not a pet, but often a wild animal.


2. A POWER OBJECT. This is a totemic object invested with imaginary magical powers, such as an heirloom, a tool, a garment, a toy or significant gift. Some people chose elements of nature (i.e. water) in this category.


3. A HERO. This had to be a hero whom my collaborator strongly identified with, not just someone they generally admired. The hero had to function as an alter ego and/or role model. 


These entities let the portrait subjects transcend their immediate limitations by re-imagining and remembering the self. Some metaphors act as an idea of power; others offer refuge and serenity.  Some were fairly abstract (water), others quite specific (Gene Kelly).  Even when the portrait subjects chose similar metaphors, they were lived and defined very differently.










Mat Fraser is a London-based actor who works on stage, film, TV and radio.  He uses his life experience of thalidomide phocomelia to satirize both the social fears around disability, and the excesses of political correctness.  His play, The Flid Show, received rave reviews on Off-Broadway in 2003. Fraser’s comedy program OUCH!, with co-host Liz Carr can be heard on BBC Radio 4.  He is currently touring as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.Fraser chose as his alter ego the famous freak-show performer Stanley Berent, a.k.a. “Sealo The Seal Boy”.  Sealo/Berent was a long time regular on the Coney Island circuit from the 1920’s to the 1970’s. Berent’s disability was also phocomelia, though his arose spontaneously rather than being the result of thalidomide (a drug given to British women in the 1950’s and 60’s to treat morning sickness.  It produces severe limb anomalies in the fetus). Fraser did extensive research on Berent’s life, eventually performing a meticulous re-creation of Sealo’s act as part of Fraser’s play Sealo Seal Boy, which weaves together Sealo’s story with scenes from Fraser’s life as a disabled actor trying to have a career in the mainstream.Mat now performs annually at Coney Island’s summer freak show, the last continuously operating show in the U.S.  Here, Mat is standing in a circus tent that has been pierced with viewing holes.  A straight razor is falling by his thigh, the handle of which is engraved with “Sealo.”  Part of Berent’s act was to perform “activities of daily living” such as shaving with such a razor, as well as dressing, feeding himself, and sawing wood using what he called his “little handsies.”










Lynn Manning is a playwright, actor, and martial artist who lives in Los Angeles.  He has appeared on numerous TV shows and commercials, as well as stage and film work, and is founder of the Watts Village Theater.  Manning’s best-known play Weights explores the relationship between race and blindness. Manning was also World Champion in Blind Judo at the Paralympics in 1990, one of his many medals in that sport.  He is currently appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe Fest.In Weights Manning describes his early success as a young visual artist.  His aspirations made him so fearful of being blind that he would “practice” blindness when alone at home, turning off the lights and trying to navigate in the dark.  In almost unbelievable irony, he was blinded at 23 when a disturbed man shot him outside a bar, where Lynn was celebrating a promotion.  The theme of fate forms the basis for this two-part portrait.  In the lower panel, Manning grasps his white can as a samurai would his sword, giving him power through what is usually regarded as a vulnerability.  In his work, Lynn writes that he is viewed as a double threat as a black man and a blind man: going from being “the white man’s burden to every man’s burden with a flick of the wrist” i.e., when he opens his folded cane.The upper panel contains the tip of the cane, above which arcs a comet whose head is the bullet that blinded him.  Inside the comet’s tail is text in Braille (it is 3-D and embossed into the paper).  It says “Born April 28, 1955: Transformed October 18, 1978”.  The sky around the comet is embossed with a chart of the constellations from April to October.







Neil Marcus is an original innovator of Disability Culture in the United States. For years, he has used performance and writing to radically re-define assumptions about disability. Marcus has cerebral palsy, which he explores as a physical language through dance, theater and poetry.  He posits the idea of disability as a nation, with all the cultural attributes of any other identity: Disability is not a 'brave struggle' or 'courage in the face of adversity'...disability is an art. It's an ingenious way to live. Gene Kelly is an important iconic figure for Marcus; not only for the originality of his dancing, but for the way he transformed gender prejudices about the male body through a melding of grace, wit, sensuality and power. Neil sits holding an umbrella (referring to Singin’ in the Rain). The umbrella blazes with Hanukah candles - Neil Marcus is Jewish – but it is also a kind of memorial.  Jerry The Mouse (of the cartoon Tom & Jerry), is running on his knee, bearing the match that set this homage alight.  Kelly “danced” with Jerry in Anchors Aweigh.Neil Marcus lives in Berkeley, CA.




Nomy Lamm (accordion, vocals) began songwriting at age nine, writing musicals at age twelve, and fronting punk bands at age sixteen. With Tricrotic, she has found her musical soulmates. Lamm has released two solo albums ("Anthem," 1999 and "Effigy," 2002). She is also a writer and speaks at colleges and universities on topic of gender, sexuality, body image, and disability. Nomy Lamm lives in San Francisco.  Nomy was born with a leg that was smaller than its mate. At the time it was considered correct procedure to amputate the foot so as to be able to wear a prosthetic. There is now a prosthesis in which the ankle joint is used as a knee joint; there are no operations and the foot is used as a foot.  The seal has long been Nomy’s totem animal. In the water she feels both psychic and physical freedom. She is a strong swimmer, and in the water she moves from a state of impairment to one of dexterity. Seals are complex creatures in how they are perceived. Usually seen as cute and puppy-like with their enormous eyes and neotenous faces, seals are actually serious carnivores sporting large teeth and claws. Through her work Nomy Lamm also demonstrates a certain edge of danger. Her resonant, smoky, voice has a startling power, whether raised in song or when speaking as an activist for marginalized people.

Gordon Sasaki was born in Hawaii, a fourth-generation Japanese-American. He became a wheelchair user after a car accident in his twenties. Since then, Sasaki has become very involved in disability culture, both as an artist and as an educator. A recent project, “New York Portraits” is a series of photographs of over fifty disabled artists and performers in New York City. Sasaki also works at MOMA where he runs programs that provide artistic education to children and adults with disabilities. 

While Gordon is a warm and friendly man, he also embodies a certain reserve that reflects his practice as a photographic observer. This distance stands in contrast to the intensity and passion of the imagery in his work. 

Gordon chose water as his source of strength, peace and freedom. It also connects to his Hawaiian heritage. The falling water delineates that small gap of separation that is the space of witness. The implied pane of glass becomes a lens, a veil, and a shield.

Nadina La Spina was born in a tiny village in Italy, where she contracted polio at 5 years old. Her family saved up and moved to New York when she was 12, so that Nadina could be treated at the NY Hospital for Special Surgery. Her adolescence was spent enduring an extensive round of surgeries that aimed to make her walk. Eventually, these surgeries so damaged her legs that they were both amputated. When she was still a small child, Nadina thought that she was the only disabled child in the world. Her mother told her this was not so, but until she came to America she thought she was the only one of her kind. At the Hospital she met other disabled children. Some also had polio. Her best friend was Wendy, a blonde girl exactly her age. Wendy taught Nadina to speak English by playing 45's on her record player. Wendy and Nadina were both very beautiful girls. Visitors would say: "Oh, you’re so pretty! What a shame. What a waste." Wendy had spina bifida and was under the impression, for years, that her many surgeries would eventually "cure" her so that she would not be "different" any more. Finally, someone finally explained that spina bifida is permanent. She got the message that she would always be unacceptable, and unlovable. Wendy committed suicide at twenty-two.  Nadina has spent her life in a quest to find and support women with disabilities. As mentor, advisor, and female role model she works to keep them from slipping into the kind of despair that destroyed Wendy. In the portrait, Wendy, a memory-ghost of a still-young girl, sits beside Nadina brushing her hair. Nadina feels that Wendy is still with her, an invisible lifelong companion.
The IV bags each contain a floating, empty dress, as homages to other lost girls. The three panels that contain the IV poles also sketch a sort of "home" around the two friends, in recognition of Nadina's dedication to physical and spiritual housing.




I have known Rachel since our undergraduate days at SAIC. Back then, she was intensely shy, hiding her impressive critical intelligence. Rachel went through many years of personal difficulty while still managing to move forward with her work. Now, she is the mother of an adopted girl from Guatemala, and recently spent the summer in Spain on an international painting fellowship. This drawing reflects my admiration for Rachel’s determination. Her quiet but stubborn will to survive has a quality of endurance and grace found in literary heroines. Rachel is holding several broken objects (a cracked white glass cup, a torn paper fan, and a broken stick) up against the wall through the weight and pressure of her body alone. She keeps these items (similar to those in her paintings) safe and stable through persistence and dedication.







Deborah Brod is an artist located in Cincinnati, Ohio. She received her MFA from the University of Cincinnati, and has been the recipient of numerous grants and awards. She works extensively as a public artist and is well known for her conceptual installations. Debbie has a complex relationship with the material world. Her work is intensely material; her installations incorporated huge swathes of dyed fabric, wire, jewels, found objects, clothing and digital imagery. Her house and studio are crammed with boxes of possible material. As a person, she is quite different; strikingly ascetic in appearance and behavior, she eats sparingly, wears thrift store clothing, and owns little in the way of what Americans consider material belongings. Her life is balanced between these two modes of relating to the material world; its transformation, and its renunciation. As we began the portrait, Debbie was diagnosed with a blood disorder, which includes chronic feelings of cold and fatigue. The ice on which she rests is her water, but frozen, a barrier between flow through which she pulls the material of her art. The drawing is charcoal on paper, with 3-D collage. The objects she holds are made of actual thread, wire and mylar. Each refers to some aspect of her work, especially the art she was doing when we met so many years ago.




2008 Charcoal and mixed media on paper 30" x 44"




Since 2001, Ren Weschler has been the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, and is also artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival. He resides in Pelham, New York.A key component of Weschler’s work is the exploration of meaning that results from the revelation of connections.  His writing is replete with linkages between ideas, between artists, between images far removed from each other in time and space.  Essays perform such feats as discovering the kinship between artists as disparate as Vermeer and Richter; tracing the female nude in clouds, paintings and landscape photography; and displaying reiterated patterns in natural and man-made phenomena that dazzle the eye and mind.  Though he writes with a great deal of relish, these works are not some shallow game of connect-the-dots.  They are rooted in themes that surface again and again in the history of human thought, ideas that are at once mutating and eternal. Weschler demonstrates that these ideas gain depth through overlapping, like oil glazes that deepen and nuance a color with each transparent layer. This portrait places Ren in a kind of camera obscura, standing in the beam of a pinhole-like lens.  The projected picture is the interior of the earth, as imagined by the 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher.  Kircher was one of the preeminent intellectuals of his time; music, biology, geology, geography, Egyptology, history, philosophy and physics were only a few areas of his accomplishment.  Weschler is fascinated with this figure (his stationery even bears images from Kircher’s work). One of Kircher’s theories was that the earth was heated and cooled by an underground circulatory system of fire and water. He suggested that volcanos are vents for the fire veins, and seas and lakes emerged from the cooling water channels.  I chose this engraving for its resemblance to the vessels of the human brain with corpus callosum divider.  A tiny drawing of New York was added at the edge, peopled with minute wire-walkers that connect the city.The cat’s cradle in Weschler’s hands is made out of collaged strips of longhand notes for Vermeer in Bosnia.  These concern his reporting of events in 1979 leading up to the Solidarity movement, and include the names of the editorial staff of a Polish monthly, Polityka.  The cradle is constructed to mimic the pattern of light rays as they pass through a pinhole camera, (as discovered by Ibn al-Haytham in the eleventh century). The Arabic symbols in red denote the action of the beams.  Ren holds the cradle in such a way that it connects the light of the exterior world (through the pinhole/lens) with the chamber of the interior (underground/brain).  The paper “rays” and the fragments of earth projected onto his body cause him to become the bridge between the inner and outer realities.Ren’s tie is decorated with the Tree of Life (Etz HaChayim) from the Kabbalah, which maps the connection between mind, body and spirit.  The Tree also echoes a model of a molecule, melding the mystic (inner) and physical/scientific (outer) worlds.





Matt Fraser

Matt Fraser

This piece, the original, was lost by Sotheby's of NYC.