Art as Advocacy
ARTICLE BY STARLA GATSON | PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
Many artists use their work to tell a story, and Whitney Trisler Causey is no exception. However, the stories told through her latest series of painted portraits aren’t entirely her own; they belong to her daughter, M’Lynn, and children much like her.
M’Lynn has Angelman syndrome, a rare neurogenetic disorder, and Causey uses her vibrantly-colored portraits to raise awareness of the disorder while challenging society’s views on developmental disabilities.
“When you think of someone that is disabled, what is the first image that comes to mind?” Causey asks. “Usually, it’s not one of the portraits you’re looking at in the work. When people see the work, they’re like, ‘Look at these beautiful, happy children,’ and when they hear the diagnosis, their perception immediately changes.”
Each of the children depicted in the portrait series also has Angelman syndrome, and though they were born in the same year as Causey’s eldest daughter, most were not diagnosed as early as M’Lynn. Thanks to M’Lynn’s physical therapist, Melanie Massey, and Causey’s intuition, doctors were able to give M’Lynn a diagnosis at just 11 months old. But according to the Angelman Syndrome Foundation, most children aren’t diagnosed until they’re between the ages of two and five.
“If you’re not on top of it, doctors can really quickly say [they’re] fine,” Causey explains. “[But] those therapies are so vital at an early age.”
The vitality of the therapies Causey speaks of and the typically too-late diagnoses are why she has gotten other artists involved in her advocacy efforts. Causey’s an assistant professor of studio art at Louisiana Tech and invites students enrolled in her classes or involved with the college’s Visual Integration of Science Through Art (VISTA) program to collaborate with the Foundation for Angelman Syndrome Therapeutics and the Angelman Syndrome Foundation.
Students have spent the spring quarter of the 2021-22 school year providing illustrations that help visualize different genotypes of the disorder. This not only allows Tech’s School of Design students to experience doing client-based work and build their portfolios, she explains, but also helps them feel as if they are a part of something bigger than themselves.
“My teaching style [includes trying] to be as vulnerable as possible; I tell my students what’s going on in my life, and I want to hear what’s going on in their lives,” Causey says. “Because they’ve heard me talk about M’Lynn and they’ve heard me talk about how difficult it is at times, they feel like they’re doing something that means something. It’s been really amazing, and I’m hoping this is something that continues.”
Speaking of things that will continue, Causey’s portrait series will, too. Though the more-than-40 children she painted were just babies when they were captured on canvas, they, like M’Lynn, are now five years old. It’s time, Causey declares, for an updated round of portraits.
“I think it’s really important for me to continue this work and paint them as children doing normal things for them and provide them a place within art history [where they aren’t] ‘the other,’” she says. “Thinking about those with disabilities and developmental disabilities — it’s like they were never presented as just humans. It was like a sideshow or something.”
Though Causey is now confident in her decision to use her art as advocacy while encouraging her students to do the same, there was a time in the Louisiana native’s life when she wasn’t even certain a career in art would be the thing she pursued. Though she was exposed to drawing at an early age — she attended adult art classes with her mother at just five years old — it wasn’t until her junior year at Ouachita Parish High School that she began taking her own drawings seriously.
“I never took an art class, but when I was in 11th grade, I had to take it,” she recalls. “That’s when I started realizing I had this sensitivity to looking and seeing things a little bit differently than everyone else did. After 11th grade, my fine art teacher was like, ‘You need to be in talented art,’ and I got tested and was in it my senior year.”
The realization that she had a gift plus her teacher’s validation encouraged her to think about art more, but still, the idea of pursuing it professionally wasn’t on her radar when she started college, she says, “I was like, ‘I’m going to be an English teacher.’ And I honestly hate writing, so I don’t know what I was thinking!”
Causey admits her first year as a college student didn’t exactly go as planned — “I failed out because I didn’t want to be there, which I think a lot of students do.” — but in hindsight, this change of plans was the best thing for her.
“I wish all students coming out of high school could go and work for a year or two and figure out who they are, what they want to do, and how to save their money,” she says. “I think that was another moment that let me step back, be creative, and play [with art] just for the sheer love of it. And then, when I went back to school, I was like, ‘Oh, I can actually do this.’ I took a drawing class, and I was hooked.”
Causey’s second go at college began with a year at Delta Community College and a year at the University of Louisiana at Monroe before concluding at Louisiana Tech in November 2012 when she graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
“In undergrad, I had no idea what I was going to do, and it wasn’t until I came to Tech that I realized I could go to grad school for this.”
However, Causey reveals, she still had some reservations about continuing her education.
“When you’re in undergrad, you see grad students and think, ‘You’re so much better than I could ever possibly be,’” she says. “I could not picture myself there, and at that moment, I decided if I can’t picture myself doing that in the future, then that’s what I need to dive into — into the unknown, into that fear — because I feel like I do so much better under pressure and in things that scare me.”
Since she didn’t get to spend much of her undergraduate time as a Bulldog, Causey elected to apply to Tech’s graduate program. Besides, she explains, she was a newlywed and already committed to staying in the area; graduate school in Ruston just made sense. There, while pursuing her Master of Fine Arts degree, Causey began exploring multiple mediums and playing around with portraiture.
“That was 2013 to 2016, the height of social media, selfie culture, and all of that, so that was really connected to the work,” she recalls. “It was all about our perception of others, our perception of ourselves, [and] how you portray unseen characteristics through a painted portrait. Then, I was trying to bring attention to how all images are mediated through something, be it a computer screen, a phone screen, a television, or the news — we’re always getting something through someone else’s perspective or point-of-view.”
A love of portraiture wasn’t the only thing conceived during Causey’s graduate school years; during her last quarter as a student, she became pregnant with M’Lynn and began what would become one of the most taxing periods of her life.
“I graduated in May 2016, and on October 25, I had my daughter,” she recalls. “During that summer, I also got a visiting teaching position here at Tech. Then, in the spring of 2017, I applied for the full tenure-track assistant professor job.”
Right after Causey got her current job, M’Lynn got her Angelman syndrome diagnosis, and Causey’s motivation and priorities shifted. She says, “That was the moment I feel like my whole purpose in life changed. I knew that my work wasn’t just about painting portraits; there would be a deeper meaning moving forward.” Thus, the young mother’s advocacy efforts were born.
Now, when the artist isn’t painting portraits for Angelman syndrome awareness, standing in front of a classroom filled with eager art students, or spending time with her husband and two daughters (Causey gave birth to a second daughter, Ella, in August 2021), Causey makes time for yet another artistic pursuit that holds her heart: mural painting with her former instructor and current colleague, Nick Bustamante. The two have been partners in mural painting for the past decade, completing 11 large-scale works in the past five years alone, including several that can be spotted in Ruston.
Life as a wife, mother, artist, and professor is amazing, Causey declares, and though pieces of her journey have been less than simple, she resents none of it. “I feel very fortunate, even in M’Lynn’s diagnosis and the things we have to go through,” she says. “I just feel like overall, it’s made me a better person. It’s slowed me down enough to be able to see people and not just move through life so quickly — slow down and appreciate every person and who they are in general. That’s how I approach the classroom and the relationships I’m developing with the students. I want them to feel like they’re seen and heard.”
To keep up with Causey’s Angelman syndrome advocacy efforts, see when the award-winning artist is exhibiting next, or find out where you can see one of the murals she, Bustamante, and their students have completed, visit her website, www.whitneytrislercauseyart.com.