A World to Be Discovered: Deaf artists of Omaha

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Hannah Michelle Bussa
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Local Deaf social media artist, Renca Dunn, is one of many Deaf people in the Omaha area. For Deaf Awareness Month, some local artists spoke out about their culture. Photo courtesy of Renca Dunn

“Truly, the Deaf community is a treasure to be found,” says local Deaf artist, Renca Dunn.

September is Deaf Awareness Month, a time to increase public awareness about Deaf culture. As the only school in Nebraska that offers a bachelor’s degree in sign language interpreting, this is meaningful for UNO.

“It’s not necessarily a world without sounds but a visual one for me,” says local artist Linsay Darnall Jr.

Darnall Jr. explains his experience: “The only negative experience that I had was from the others and their framing of Deaf people. I don’t use words such as ‘hearing impaired’ or ‘hearing loss’ because they have a negative connotation that enable the public to perceive us in a way that we are lacking something, that we need help. I use capital letter D to describe myself as a Deaf person. It invokes a sense of pride and community. An identity. It’s more a sense of ethnicity according to my experience.”

Linsay Darnall, Jr. was born Deaf to Deaf parent. After graduating from Nebraska School for the Deaf in Omaha, he studied at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

Darnall, Jr. is an American Sign Language (ASL) storyteller based in Omaha. ASL storytelling has an over 200-year history in the United States.

“Back in the old days when Deaf people didn’t have access to the radio or movies, they would get together and share stories,” he says.

Darnall, Jr. has incorporated ASL into other forms of art. He has taught acting classes at the Rose Theater and directed “Job the Movie.” He consulted on historical ASL signing style and had an appearance in “The Silent Natural,” which is now streaming. He is also a narrator on the documentary, “Audism Unveiled” on Vimeo, depicting a form of oppression Deaf people face.

Heather Nurse is another Deaf artist based in Omaha. Born profoundly deaf to hearing parents, she highlights the importance of her schooling at Iowa School for the Deaf in Council Bluffs.

“The Deaf school benefited me in countless ways,” Nurse says. “They taught me ASL and gave me equal access to communication and education with no language barrier.”

Not every child born in a situation similar to Nurse’s has that experience.

“Many deaf children do not have the chance to experience something like this, because unfortunately, not many [hearing] people know about ASL or Deaf schools and their benefits,” she says. “ASL is the root of Deaf culture, and I always think of it as an art because it is beautiful, unique and expressive. It is a visual language.”

Nurse found her confidence in art while watching Bob Ross.

“I thought I had to be hearing in order to be an artist, because I didn’t know any Deaf artists,” she says. “However, at one point Bob Ross quoted on his show, ‘The secret to doing anything is believing that you can do it.’ That resonated with me, so I decided to become a deaf artist.”

Nurse does many forms of art, from realistic portraits and acrylic painting to special effects makeup and tattoo design.

Heather Nurse, a Deaf artist based in Omaha, does many forms of art, from realistic portraits and acrylic painting to special effects makeup and tattoo design. Artwork/Photo courtesy of Heather Nurse.

“I want to show the world more of Deaf artists and help the Deaf/hard of hearing community believe in themselves. We can do anything we want in life,” Nurse says.

“The Deaf community is full of colors. There are so many things you can learn about us to expand your worldview. We have Deaf models, musicians, artists, actors, teachers, truck drivers, and more,” Renca Dunn says, a local Deaf social media artist who sings, acts, and creates comedy videos.

Dunn was born Deaf into the third generation of a Deaf family. She went to a mainstream school for the beginning of her education.

Dunn says: “I was never happy because I did not feel a sense of belonging. I was not welcomed, but rather ridiculed. People made fun of my sign language. So, I moved to a Deaf school and that is where I felt more rooted in my identity. I became more confident in what I could do as a Deaf person and how I can fight against communication barriers and oppression.”

After graduating from Washington School for the Deaf, Dunn went on to study at Gallaudet University and American University.

“Personally, I do not think about my Deafness when I am in a group of Deaf people who are like me. My disability becomes blended in with others,” she says. “However, when I step in a world of hearing people and become surrounded with them, I am reminded of my Deafness. So, it impacts me in different ways. With my Deaf community, I appreciate being Deaf and I love our beautiful American Sign Language.”

Dunn also speaks about hearing allies.

“I think hearing people need to recognize their place in our Deaf community and how they can be our allies,” she said. “One too many times hearing people have exploited sign language by signing songs or teaching ASL or creating businesses and art that provide sign language when it is not their native language. So, it is important for hearing people to recognize how they can support us without taking over.”

“We love having allies so if you’re hearing and you genuinely want to learn more about us – welcome! If you are late deafened and want to be part of the community, you are already part of us! Welcome! There’s a whole world to be discovered,” Dunn said.

You can find and support each of these Deaf artists online:

Linsay Darnall, Jr.: on YouTube by searching his name, and his business website, http://www.darnallconsulting.com/index.html

Heather Nurse: Instagram: @hea.r.thersworld

Renca Dunn: ReallyRenca – Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and as a part-time anchor on The Daily Moth

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