Seeing the news of Betsy Wyeth’s recent death prompted me to go back and view one of my favorite of her husband’s paintings, Christina’s World. On their first date, Betsy introduced her future husband, Andrew Wyeth, to a neighbor, Christina Olsen. This introduction would lead to a friendship between this emerging American artist and middle-aged woman that would last a lifetime.
Christina Olsen had a degenerative disorder that stopped her from walking. She refused to use a wheelchair and instead propelled herself forward with the strength of her arms dragging behind her lower body. In the now famous painting, she was shown in a field she often visited, adjacent to her home.
I have looked at this picture literally thousands of times and what I see with this recent inspection is an image of loneliness. It may be the current isolation we are all experiencing right now with our responsible sheltering in place, but I am suddenly struck by how very lonely and abandoned she appears in this painting.
I am reminded that the most severe punishment one can receive is that of solitary confinement for it is with that isolation that one can “break”. The lack of communication from others, the loss of the sense of time or even a disorienting confusion about the days of week can push the strongest of individuals over the edge.
After decades of a culture that allowed for physical segregation and emotional isolation from the rest of the community, many individuals with disabilities have experienced opportunities for greater integration. Just as we were seeing greater progress with employment opportunities and enhanced access to social elements of our communities, we must now comply with the directives to shelter in place.
COVID-19 has shown little greater threat to a population than to those in congregate settings; settings such as nursing homes, prisons and group homes. For an individual with a disability, co-morbid conditions add to the lethality of this virus, perhaps as much as five times that of the general population. At this time there are very limited options for many with disabilities to safely leave their residence.
During the May AWS Foundation Board Meeting, the directors recognized the efforts some in northeast Indiana who have worked to minimize that sense of isolation. You see, while many of us could work from home, hundreds of caregivers continued to report to work each and everyday to care for those who needed them and trusted they would be there.
For many who care for those in group homes or other settings, it was more than a job. Those caregivers willingly isolated themselves when they were not working to help ensure they were not increasing the risk of a shared exposure to the virus. Services were often provided and equipment purchased for which there would likely be no reimbursement. Through a divided grant of $550,000, AWS Foundation recognized the sacrifice and continued advocacy of those eleven nonprofit agencies.
In describing Christina’s World, Andrew Wyeth said, “The challenge to me was to do justice to her extraordinary conquest of a life which most people would consider hopeless,” he wrote. “If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do.”
This isolation will not last forever. As I write this, we are seeing a cautious testing of lessening restrictions. There is still a vulnerability for many but I am optimistic that we will find our way back to the path towards a more inclusive community after this detour. I would ask you to consider the image of Christina’s World and challenge yourself to help us get back to that path of inclusion over isolation.