Deaf Charlie Brown

In the second consecutive year of celebrating St. Paul as the home of Peanuts creator Charles Shultz, statues of Charlie Brown sprouted everywhere around the city this June.

One of those statues, located at 1536 Hewitt Avenue on the Hamline University campus, stands complete with a hearing aid tucked into his right ear and a shirt speckled with hands of all colors shaped into letters of ASL. While this statue,”Charlie Brown Understands American Sign Language (ASL),” is a must-see for members of the deaf community, the sculpture also serves as an important landmark for anyone concerned with building bridges between communities.

Charlie’s journey to Hamline’s campus began with Helene Oppenheimer, the artist who submitted the original drawing for the sculpture to the city earlier this year. Nancy Howard at Hamline University selected Oppenheimer’s drawing, saying that “it touched me.”

Bringing the statue to life was a grueling process for the artists. Oppenheimer admits, “I can do a lot, but I can’t do it alone.” For help, she relied on her friends in the Deaf Art Club, a local group that Oppenheimer has been working with since the club’s inception in 1999. Helene and club members had to complete the Charlie Brown statue in a matter of just a few days. She describes the challenge: “It was a like a marathon. I worked day and night, sometimes as late as 3 AM. Whenever we needed to talk to each other, we had to stop what we were doing and talk through ASL, so that was an extra challenge. Through it, though, we stayed friends, and we became closer. I think this was an opportunity where it either brings you closer or breaks you up because it was such a test of endurance.”

She continues, “It’s one thing to be able to do that when you’re having a good day, but to do that under stress and endurance was really an accomplishment. Now we know that we can and we did. We learned we can work as a group. I was privileged to witness other people’s growth as artists and leaders. There is so much pride knowing that we achieved this together as a team; it’s much more powerful.”

So far, Oppenheimer has heard positive response to the Deaf Art Club’s Charlie Brown. “When people see the statue, they talk about their connection to the deaf community with a smile on their face. I hope it continues to get people and children excited about ASL so they want to learn more.”

Though she has fibromyalgia and six herniated discs, Oppenheimer is not deaf. Instead, she has opened her heart and found a bridge to this particular community. Living in California when she first became disabled, she wanted to thank a deaf friend for helping to take care of her. ” I sculpted a person signing ‘Inspiration.’ Just intending to work on this one sculpture. He looked at it and he said ‘she’s talking to me.’ It was very emotional.”

She can relate. As an immigrant from Russia who couldn’t speak English when she arrived in America, Oppenheimer knows how important it is to have your voice understood and how important it is to be able to communicate. She says, “It’s very difficult for people, anywhere, when they don’t have their language.” For this reason, she and the Deaf Arts Club share a mission to “get as much deaf art out in the community as possible in my lifetime. Anyplace there’s deaf people who frequent a place, there should be deaf art so you know that there are deaf people there. It’s uplifting.” 

Finally, Helene insists that she has found her place, even as an ‘outsider’ to the deaf community. “For a while, I thought I shouldn’t do this because I’m not deaf. Its not my place. I’ve learned, though, that it is my place even more. It needs to be outsiders who challenge racism, hatred, ignorance, and fear. It’s important that I’m not deaf because all of us need to take responsibility and the people with privilege, especially, need to take responsibility. Deaf art is a folk art, meaning that it is an art of the people. You don’t have to be from that ethnic group to learn about it and enjoy it.”

More information about Oppenheimer’s and the Deaf Art Club’s work can be found at www.home.earthlink.net/~aslclay

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