I’ve always been a little lost - not in a metaphysical sense, but in a literal sense. I can walk into my local hardware store for art supplies and get turned around. I get confused when I drive into a familiar intersection from a different direction that I’m accustomed to. I can even take a few steps in a strange city and then struggle finding my way back to the hotel. And it’s not simply directions that have me confused. Words jump across the page as I try to read. Organizing my thoughts into sentences on a page takes a little longer for me than for others. And I need simple ideas explained to me in more than one way. It’s a little embarrassing, but this sense of being lost has played a major role in the artist I have become; It also has a name: dyslexia.
“Dyslexia” is a general term for a cognitive condition describing people deeply connected with the non-verbal side of the brain, the right side. Affecting one in ten people worldwide, dyslexia is considered by most healthcare professionals to be a “disability” that causes children to struggle learning to read, write, and orient themselves. As someone labeled dyslexic from a fairly early age, I’ve found it to be both a challenge and a wonderful gift. In this essay, I’d like to offer you a change in perspective about how our society views dyslexics through my story of coping with dyslexia through art.
As we know, there are two sides of the brain: the left (strongly verbal side) and the right (creative conceptual nonverbal side.) The majority of the world’s population would consider the left side the most dominant: those people rooted in reading, writing, and/or math. This leaves the remainder, 6-7% of the global population, to consider themselves dominantly right-brained, which is who verbal left-brainers label “dyslexics.”
I’m sure most people have a general idea of what “dyslexia” is. It’s where letters jump around on a page of text, and you have a harder time learning to read, write and spell. It can also affect physical orientation, where there’s a disconnect between a broader sense of placement and sense of space. But those that fall under the “dyslexia” label are capable of thinking on a completely different level and plane than their left-brained counterparts. Right-brained people think conceptually, in pictures instead of words. They can alter and create perceptions while thinking multi-dimensionally. And they have vivid imaginations.
I’ve found an entire class of people - from Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, and Pablo Picasso to Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Steven Spielberg - with this same unique experience in common. These were magnificently creative and innovative people who struggled in the rigid systems of education, but who didn’t let verbal oppression limit their thinking.
My story is no different.
From an early age, I found learning language, math, and orientation difficult. Placement and order, even names and visual memory were other areas that caused frustration and despair. I was often considered “spacey” because I needed simple ideas explained in more than one way and frequently got turned around at school. Names and faces were (and are today) a constant blur.
Understandably, school and the expectations of the educational system frustrated me. I became accustomed to working five times harder than my classmates to get a reasonable grade; I learned to speak up in class when I didn't understand; and I spent a lot of time after school with my teachers. The extra effort to understand things in greater depth - to really 'get it'- helped me master some areas beyond my conventionally 'smarter' peers who could more easily learn things at face value. This was how I operated until being diagnosed with learning disabilities in 5th grade. Having a name to put with my differences gave me an incredible sense of relief, but it also came with a terrible price.
Labeling someone as “dyslexic” is like taping a sign to their back that reads, “I’m a slow learner.” You suddenly become that kid who struggles in school, which affects you - deeply. It impacts your self esteem, your motivation to learn, and your personal relationships with friends and family. But even as medical professionals will tell you, dyslexia is independent from general intelligence. It simply means you think a different way. And that is not a bad thing.
If you try to fit a round peg into a square hole, you’re going to end up frustrated. That is what being dyslexic feels like in a conventional classroom setting. You are the round peg that a well-meaning teacher tries to squeeze into the square hole. That’s why I turned to art.
Throughout my childhood I used art as a way of managing how I saw and comprehended the world around me. I could take the vivid images and web-like maps of concepts in my head and make meaning of them without ever needing words or language. With art there’s never a right or wrong answer because art itself is the answer. It became a place of comfort, and it just made so much more sense to me than words or directions. I remember taking road trips with my family and bringing a little pad to draw on in the car. As we drove, I would mimic the direction of the car with lines. When the car turned, my lines turned. And in doing so I could make my own maps, using the direction that came naturally to my brain. I realized, with time, that dyslexia never handicapped my intelligence and desire for knowledge; it simply enhanced my experience on this planet.
This realization helped me begin understanding and appreciating dyslexia, but it was also a harsh reminder that this world is structured for a very specific type of left-brain learner. The rigidity I saw in the classroom and even in day-to-day life frustrated me. Where is the rule that says we all need to learn the exact same way? We don’t all grow up to be scientists or writers or doctors - and thank goodness. Dyslexics are deeply connected with the non-verbal sides of their brains, allowing them to view the world differently and bring a completely different perspective. They are directly connected to the side that can freely innovate and create. I believe we are mass producing students all geared towards science and math, but forgetting that success, at its very core, is based in the ability to think creatively, to innovate. If creativity is a commodity, why are so many people afraid to draw, or play an instrument, or dance? And shouldn’t we be embracing “dyslexics” for their thinking abilities?
I imagine a world where a classroom environment supports all learning processes. I imagine a world where creativity isn’t stifled by age five by art teachers who teach us to grade and judge our creations. What would the world look like if we allowed creativity to flow freely? What could we accomplish if we stopped labeling people as “dyslexic” and started appreciating them for the thinking abilities they have? And, how do we push back against the idea that if you don’t fit the learning mold then you’re permanently behind? We need a world where all learners can flourish, not only the majority. We need change.
I think the first step forward is to be vocal and to find solidarity with similar people. We need to educate teachers and adults on how to better help dominantly right-brained (dyslexic) children at school. It’s also important for “dyslexics” to know when to ask for help. We live in a world where left-brain logic is king; everything is verbal. I know my strengths and accept my weaknesses, which is why I have a team help me with the projects that I don't have time to tackle on my own or that I need help understanding conceptually. Along with the support I receive from galleries, I also have a studio manager, assistant, writer and bookkeeper. The work from my team ranges from everything to contracts with galleries, to collaborating with brands, and carrying out campaigns. I've learned that even with how hard I work, I can't do it all alone. And that has pushed me forward as an artist.
Today, in my current art practice, I use dyslexia as a tool. Rather than spend time making rough drafts of paintings, I think of each painting as a rough draft - something to learn from and build on. There’s never a right or wrong answer, and each mark leads me to the next piece. It’s conceptual, playful, and maybe sometimes scientific when it comes to medium and color. And I still work hard, just like I did as a kid in school.
When my paintings are all lined up like a grid on the wall, they mimic my own language. Each painting could be a sentence or just one letter, which is incredibly liberating in a world with a set verbal structure. Waking up each day in the studio and spending time lost in the process of creating makes me think that maybe I wasn’t lost like I always thought I was. Maybe I was just misunderstood in a world of left-brained people and their rules. Luckily, I found art - or maybe art found me and it led me to a place of fulfilment. The same can be true for you. No matter who you are or what you’re grappling with, and no matter your level, art will meet you where you are and take you somewhere good.
Written by Heather Day. Edited and polished by Kate Holthouser.