GRAND RAPIDS — "We were beginning to feel at the early part of the pandemic, that that our stories weren't actually getting told," said Chris Smit, DisArt co-director.
While the pandemic was hard on everyone, it was especially challenging for those that are disabled. This is exactly what inspired The My Dearest Friends Project.
"So what we're trying to do with the project is to say, 'let's carry each other'," said Smit. "Let's carry each other, know each other's stories know what we're going through, and try to gain some empathy."
Chris Smit is the co-director of DisArt, a Grand Rapids based production company that hosts events promoting the advancement of disability culture.
Smit partnered with disability rights activist and artist, Oaklee Thiele in March of 2020 to create The My Dearest Friends Project.
The online art project was inspired by a poem Thiele wrote in the beginning of the pandemic.
"The first line of her poem was 'my dearest friends,' and we said, well, let's just do that and have people write in their stories," said Smit. "We're really into being anonymous because we want people to be able to be honest and truthful."
The project has now received more than 450 unique stories, which Thiele has illustrated and shared on Instagram.
The online collection is set to be displayed at the Grand Rapids Art Museum for ArtPrize 2021 in September.
"It was really comforting, for me, at least getting to read these and like, realizing that even the strongest among us are having these same fears and anxieties that I'm having," said Oaklee. "It's provided a lot of solac, I think for me, and a lot of community."
To help extend that feeling of community, The My Dearest Friends Project most recently partnered with the Grand Rapids Children's Museum to invite children to tell their stories.
Their submissions will be illustrated by Thiele and made into a large-scale banner, displayed outside of the Grand Rapids Children's Museum.
"We have already received a few key submissions from disabled youth and that was really exciting. Just seeing young kids sort of really proudly, and boldly say, you know, 'I am part of the disability community'."
For Smit the opportunity to share these children's stories hits close to home and knows how great the impact could be.
"As a disabled kid growing up, I didn't have a lot of disabled friends. I didn't have a lot of disabled community. I had a brother who was disabled, but I didn't have a sense that my story was somebody else's story," said Smit. "If I would have had that, I can only imagine that I wouldn't have felt so isolated. I may have even felt a little bit of pride."