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Interview with An Artist Advancing Democracy

by | Jun 22, 2021 | Blog, Disability Culture, Disability Rights, Voting

June 22, 2021

Derek Heard, a young Black Autistic artist from Albany, Georgia, uses his talents to get out the vote in Georgia. Derek and his mom Teresa Heard, a member of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities, participated in the Georgia Disability Vote Partnership (GDVP) to help motivate people with disabilities to vote and provide them with  the tools and information they needed to make sure their ballot counted in 2020. Derek was integral to the Georgia Disability Vote Partnership, and the partnership wanted to find a way to share Derek’s art widely and highlight the power of Derek’s work. My colleague Keri Gray and I connected with Derek and Teresa after the 2021 runoff election in Georgia, and talked together about how they got connected to the GDVP and also learned more about Derek and his love for art. Afterwards, Derek and Teresa provided insights in a written interview so that Derek could share a bit about himself and some of his favorite artwork with our audience.

Where are you from? Albany, Georgia 

How old are you? I am 20 years old 

How would you describe yourself? I am a self-advocate and confident. I have autism. I am funny. I like to help people. I like kids. I like to garden and cook. I want to do character design in video games. My best friend is Carley. I love my teacher Mrs. Tomlinson. My friend Gabby helped me and likes to draw things like me. I am part of Uniting for Change with Katie Chandler and Michelle Schwartz.
Additional information from Teresa Heard: Derek is self-taught primarily. He has taken art classes previously but since COVID 19 and doing virtual learning, he has been taking consistent art lessons year round. Derek has always enjoyed art as a young child and that was how he related to the world when he was young and before he could speak verbally.  I once told Derek that communicating can be done in pictures as well as words. That his words are an explosion of colors, lines, shapes, and shades. As Derek grew, I thought his love of art was a hobby but he gradually let me know that it was more than that. Also the fact that we have boxes of cut out characters that he has drawn over the years.  

How did you get involved in voting outreach in Georgia? My mom told me about REV UP Georgia. I spoke with a lady who told me about it. (Stacey at [The Arc Georgia]).  I want to know more about voting and why it is important.  

Why does voting matter to you? Because it is important for all the people and for the world. You choose who you want to vote for. I want lawmakers who will help me and not hurt self-advocates. My voice is my power.  

A drawing is displayed on an easel outside and shows a scene outdoors on grassy hills with a sun in the background. Large letters say "Why I vote!" in black on a white background in the sky. On the left is a voting office with an American flag on a flag pole and on a hill in the background is a house labeled "my house, my own home." In the forefront of the drawing is a self portrait of Derek, a young black man, wearing a chef's hat and holding a ballot. The hill Derek is standing on says "self-advocate" and around him are a sign with pictures of Derek's family and it says "brother, son," a flower box that says "gardener," a gameboy that says "gamer!," and an easel with a canvas that says "artist folks art" with a paint palette. Next to the  words "Why I vote!" is a drawing of Derek's friend Carley with the word "friends" on the left.
Why I Vote by Derek Heard (Markers and Colored Pencils on Paper)
A drawing on a white paper is displayed on an easel outside. The drawing says "Get Out the Vote" in red and black letters with two spotlights on either side. In the middle of the drawing are 4 faces wearing red striped hats with blue rims, waiving a flag, and shouting woohoo. Below is 2021 in red letters next to two yellow stars and inside of a blue outlined rectangle. Derek Heard's name is signed in the bottom right of the drawing.
Get Out the Vote 2021 by Derek Heard (Marker on Art Paper)

How did you help the Georgia Disability Vote Partnership get out the vote? I helped by drawing voting pictures and art for it. I wanted to show my dreams in my art.

Additional information from Teresa Heard: Stacie Rameriez with The Arc Georgia sent me an email about REV UP Georgia. Derek was a new voter and was just beginning his journey to understanding why voting is important not only as an American, but as an African American man. I told him about how so many people did so many things to help him be able to vote from the past. But I also wanted him to see how people were doing things now as well. His involvement was life changing. Derek now talks about voting regularly and how his voice matters. I explained to Derek that sometimes people make laws and they don’t know it will make it hard for him to get a job or go to school. So he has to speak up and let people know. 

When did you start drawing and what do you draw about usually? I started drawing characters when I was a little boy. In the beginning, I would draw mainly characters from cartoons. Now, I like to draw pop art and what makes me feel happy. I draw about things I like and how I feel. 

What materials do you usually draw with? Pencil, colored pencils, crayons, and paint. 

Why is drawing important to you? Because it helps me raise up my voice. It helps me to get people to vote. It makes me happy and I talk to people with my pictures. 

 A white canvas is displayed on an easel with a brick background. On the canvas in the middle it says Black History Month in red and black letters on a yellow rectangle. Below are two fists in the power sign and all around are different Black historical figures, along with drawings representing their work. Thurgood Marshall's name is next to a drawing of a gavel, Shirley Chisholm's name is next to a drawing of the top of the capital building, Katherine Johnson's name is at the top of the canvas next to a NASA shuttle, Alvin Ailey's name is next to a drawing of a dancer, Quincy Jones' name is next to music notes, and Robert Abbot's name is on a copy of the Chicago Defender newspaper. All around are words in green and orange saying Math, Science, Culture, Law, Politics, Author, Arts, and Change.
Black History Month by Derek Heard (Paint on Canvas)
A canvas is displayed on an easel outside and the canvas shows a colorful marker drawing with three hands in the middle and a few hands partially on the canvas and partially off the canvas. The background is sections of bright blues and greens and the hands have the base color of white and are sectioned off with different colors and drawings throughout on the palms, fingers, wrists, and arms. Each drawing communicates something about the person whose hand it represents in Derek's family. There are flames coming off of some fingers. drawings of American and South Korean flags, drawings of different people's faces, drawings of foods, and drawings of peace signs, and more.
Family Hands by Derek Heard (Paint on Canvas)

How do your identities as a young Black disabled artist influence your drawings and your drawing process, or do they? I draw pictures about my family. I love being myself. I love to be brown. I love who I am. When I want to draw something. I go to the internet to look up about it. It gives me big ideas. 

Additional information from Teresa Heard: Derek as a child would draw fantastical characters and cut them out and save them. He gradually started drawing other pictures. When I started buying him drawing/art books, I could see a change in how he was drawing. He enjoyed art classes so much and we kept a house full of paints, paper, markers, crayons, and other art supplies for him. Derek would draw pictures in the past to tell me how he was feeling. I recall moments when he would get frustrated and a picture would slide under my bedroom door with a frowning face staring back at me. When Derek wants to draw something, he needs literal references. So we search the internet to look at images of things relevant to what he wants to draw about. So for example, when he wanted to [draw] about going to vote and looking at Georgia’s My Voter Page. We looked at the website and talked about what it does. We would look at other references online as well. He said that it is like a map. I told him yes, it was like that and it helped people know where they had to go to vote. From there he would draw out the concept.

Artwork by Derek Heard showing a young black man driving a bright orange pick up truck on a highway through green hills. In the back of the truck is a figure wearing sunglasses and a hat and holding a map with question marks and a thought bubble surounding them that says "Where do I need to go to vote?" On the road ahead of the driver are signs saying "Goergia's My Voter Page" and "Vote, Go Vote" with an hand pointing ahead. The red and blue round REV UP logo is in the center top of the graphic.
Twitter Graphic with Derek’s Art
Displayed on a canvas outside is a marker drawing that has two half split down the middle. Both halves show a version of Derek. On the left, Derek is drawn in bold dark colors and is wearing a collared shirt with red stripes. The background is black with large squares of red, orange, and yellow. On the right Derek is drawn in pastel colors with black outline, and the background is light blue with circles of blue, purple, green, and pink and a purple peace symbol.
Two Faces of Derek by Derek Heard (Paint and Marker on Watercolor Paper)
A large canvas is displayed on an easel outside, and the canvas is painted bright sky blue with many orange slices painted in orange, purple, and red and of different sizes.
Orange Slices by Derek Heard (Watercolor Paint on Canvas)

Blog edited by Lilian Aluri, REV UP Voting Campaign Coordinator at the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Derek Heard, a young black man with short hair, is wearing a white collared shirt and smiling.

Derek Heard is a 20-year-old young man who attends Lee County High School in Georgia. He is a blossoming self-advocate and artist who enjoys food, graphic design, and playing video games. He is a recent social butterfly and enjoys teaching people about his love of art. Derek began his journey being involved in community programs through Easterseals Southern Georgia since he was 7 years old through their Family Support Program. As a young adult, Derek is now actively involved in groups that believe in furthering causes for people with developmental disabilities. Derek is now a member of the Uniting for Change Network of self-advocates and REV UP Georgia. Derek is an enthusiastic person who doesn’t mind jumping in and helping out any way that he can. He has a love of people and has an extreme passion for art. He inspires to become a professional artist and be involved with character design for game designing companies like Blizzard. He lives with 2 younger brothers and parents. His other key allies are his grandparents and his best friend, Carley Holland.