My Hero is a series designed to shine a spotlight on a person or group with special needs who dedicates their time to making the lives of other like people better in some way. These people are all heroes who spend their limited energy, resources and time to make the world a better, brighter, or more accessible place for people with chronic illnesses or who have special needs. They don’t have to be a spoonie or zebra to qualify. They need only to serve those individuals in their work. If you know a hero like this, be sure to let us know about them!
October’s Hero is not only someone I admire and respect a great deal for her politic, wit, considerable skill and all she does for the community; she’s also someone I’ve recently come to know and admire as a friend. Michaela Oteri, known as Ogrefairy in the art world, is a digital artist in Florida with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) who spends her limited energy and resources creating empowering, intimate, one-of-a-kind portraits of the physically disabled in the spirit of the Cripple Punk (or cpunk) movement as part of her business as a freelance artist. In addition to these portraits, she volunteers her time administering to online support groups for people with her conditions. When I interviewed Michaela, we talked about the inception, ideologies and history of the cpunk movement and how it helped to change how she felt about her own disabilities. We also discussed a bit about how she has adapted her artistry to make it work for her, along with some invaluable advice for artists with similar conditions looking to break into the freelance market.
The Cripple Punk Movement
Despite this being the fourth article in this series, it was around the time that I met Michaela that I began thinking about this series. You could say she was part of the inspiration for it. I was super impressed with her skill and the vision behind the cripple punk portraits I saw in her portfolio. I felt immediately inspired by the images, empowered, even. I saw people with defiant eyes daring society to pity them or make assumptions about their weakness. People with the inner strength to stand out and say “Yeah, I’m different from you and that’s okay. Go ahead and gawk. This body is still beautiful and I am proud to be in it.” People kind of like myself, or at least how I aspire to be. I asked Michaela to explain what it’s all about:
This is going to be a bit of a long answer so hold onto your hats!
The Cripple Punk movement isn’t mine! Cripple Punk (or cpunk) is a movement that was created by Tyler Trewhella, who sadly passed away last year.
It is a movement that is exclusively by the physically disabled for the physically disabled. It is about rejecting pity, inspiration porn and all other forms of ableism. It [r]ejects the “good cripple” mythos.
It’s basically a personal movement about freeing yourself from what society tells you, you should be as a disabled and/or chronically ill person. The movement has been really great to me and has made such a huge difference in how I, and a lot of people that I know, see themselves.
These days it is all about keeping the movement alive for Tai, and all of the other people we have lost along the way, and trying to spread awareness/self-love to people who might need it.
My portrait series is one of the ways that I have tried to incorporate, be a part of, and boost this movement. I draw disabled people as they are. Who they are. And try to incorporate as much personality and aspects of them as individuals as I can.
Disabled people are beautiful and awesome and interesting and we honestly spend so much of our lives being told by society that we are not. This series is just my little part in changing that.
In Ogrefairy’s portraits, you get a true sense of who these people are, what they love and what matters to them. Laden with symbolism of the things most important to them, stirring t-shirt quotes and proud, determined faces, these portraits show that the subjects may be disabled, but they’re still well-rounded individuals full of pride, individuality and a zest for life despite the trials they endure.
I also asked Michaela how often she gets confronted about the term “cripple.” Obviously, it’s a loaded word with historically negative connotations and anyone who is differently abled would probably be horrified and insulted to be called crippled by an able-bodied person. Ironically, it’s the able-bodied she’s heard the most resistance from, perhaps because they don’t quite understand the act of reclamation it is:
When it comes down to it, Cripple is our word to reclaim. It has been thrown at us our whole lives in a derogatory way. So you know what? Fine. We are cripples. And we are great. Greater than society would ever believe us to be.
Some disabled people are uncomfortable with the word and I understand 100% and don’t judge them for it at all but usually when I explain the movement, I haven’t really run into any disabled people who weren’t interested. That is why “CPunk” is an option, for people uncomfortable using the word, which is 100% respected.
Of course things like this are always going to come down to a matter of personal opinion and identification and Michaela is sensitive to these feelings. As a leftist leaning political person, I’ve always been very comfortable with word reclamation. My point of view in using the term cripple is to say that yes, I am and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of all I’ve been through, survived and even flourished under at times. And People can’t rob me of my pride by calling me something which I already fully own in heart and mind. By reclaiming such words, we turn their power around.
Life as a Disabled Artist
Michaela was diagnosed at 14 with primary EDS, but has always had symptoms. She has many comorbid conditions like most of us zebras and suffers from persistent symptoms of ME/CFS, which means she must spend a significant amount of time in bed at rest or much like me, in a recliner. Michaela lost the ability to walk before she was 18, but with surgeries has regained the ability with the assistance of crutches. Due to her ME/CFS and other symptoms, however, she still needs to use her power chair for trips requiring a lot of walking.
Like so many of us in spoonieville, Michaela’s primary link to the outside world and the work she loves so much is her laptop and her tablet. With her drawing tablet, she can draw in bed, which is the best place for her to work. She tells me her conditions are the reason why she chose the medium she did. “I started with pencils actually and dabbled in markers but I kept on injuring my hands. I was told that I needed to stop drawing or I would damage my right hand permanently. Working digitally means that I can turn the pressure sensitivity waaay up so I don’t have to press down hardly at all. I have gotten very good at controlled, gentle gestures to create my work.”
Among the artists I’ve spoken with who have EDS or HSD, hand pain is the number one complaint. The other thing that keeps them from working longer is almost always neck and back pain. Digital art sounds like a great alternative if you can successfully make the switch. With my own painting, hand strain and neck strain keep my work at a snail’s pace. Even with the way Michaela has found to make her art work for her, it can take anywhere from two days to a week to finish a portrait due to the wide range of symptoms and their variance and regular breaks are a very necessary part of the process to combat the symptoms that develop during her work.
Of course life can’t be all work. Michaela also enjoys spending time helping others with her conditions by administering to some groups and offering her advice and support when needed. She also enjoys the social aspects of the groups, so important to a well balanced life for anyone.
Michaela also enjoys spending time with her partner, whom she met as a teen and is now married to. Michaela largely credits her partner for inspiring her to pursue art. “I didn’t get really determined until I made a new best friend who I thought was soooo awesome at drawing and I wanted to be like them! I was around 16-17? Now we are married and we are both artists so I guess that went well!”
Indeed, it did, Michaela!
Ogrefairy’s 8 Tips for Aspiring Freelance Artists
When I asked Michaela what other disabled artists looking to break into the freelance market might expect and she was very generous with her response:
- Buckle up. Freelance is a tricky business to break into no matter what. It takes a lot of work and time and effort and A LOT of luck.
- First I would recommend to make a name for yourself. Choose a name that is going to be your art/business name. Mine is Ogrefairy and I can be found on most social media sites under that name.
- The next thing is network. Make pages everywhere. Facebook, twitter, tumblr, instagram, youtube, art sharing sites, anything that is applicable to your work or situation. You want to just get your work out there and interact with people. Comment on others work and have conversations. Do collabs and trades. That is a great way to start building a reputation. I suggest not taking requests though because it gives people the wrong idea.
- Find a niche. Some kind of group or community that you can join/produce work for that works for you. Fanart is the easiest choice but there are a ton of options. Fill your gallery with all kinds of examples that fit this.
- Do not sell yourself short. Your work is valuable. When you want to start trying to do your work for money, keep in mind how much goes into your work. I suggest looking at prices of people who are selling work around your skill level and make pricing choices from there. It is a business so you don’t want to overcharge too much and risk losing business but you don’t want to undersell yourself either.
- As you get interest and demand for your work, you can slowly start raising your prices. My standard full body portraits started at $25. Now they are $80 but that has been very gradual over the course of 5 or so years.
- DO NOT expect to get noticed overnight. I was an artist for 8 years before people really started taking a lot of notice and that is okay!
- Just keep working and remember. This is primarily for you. Focus on your portfolio and your networking, sure but remember that you are supposed to be having fun first and foremost and if you aren’t enjoying yourself, something is wrong.
In addition to creating these inspirational portraits, Michaela does a variety of commissioned portraits and also takes on commercial work. With a name like Ogrefairy, you may have already guessed that Michaela also has a passion for drawing fantasy creatures and the occasional comic book character, too. Her portfolio is filled with interesting subjects and beautiful creatures, both human and mythical. Always wanted to know how you might look as a mermaid? Michaela is no doubt up to the challenge and her rates are very reasonable. Her Cripple Punk portraits are only $50-60 and her other non-commercial portraits can run from $25-$200. Can’t quite swing $60? Put a Cripple Punk portrait from Michaela on your holiday list!
You can follow/reach Ogrefairy at the the following links: