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VR artist: ‘You need to see disabled people as people’

Jeff Lewis, a virtual reality artist, in downtown Seattle. Photos by Taylor McAvoy

Virtual reality, or VR, can transport people to places they never imagined they’d visit. It can make art and other life experiences — from hiking the Grand Canyon to hiking through the Amazon rainforest — accessible to everyone.

For Jeff Lewis, a virtual reality and multimedia artist, it’s also therapeutic.

“That’s the thing I love about VR,” Lewis said. “If you don’t have the ability to do it in real life, you can try to do it in VR.”

Lewis, 27, was born with congenital amputation. He uses a program called Tilt Brush to create 3-D landscapes, objects and characters. In his work, he spotlights disability in order to dispel misconceptions. He hopes his art can create discussions about disability and change people’s perceptions. He also hopes his art encourages others to follow their passion no matter the obstacles.

“I see myself as an ambassador,” he said.

The disabled population “are just the same as everyone else. Yeah, I’m disabled or handicapped, but I’m also handicapable and I’m able to rise above the things that I’m dealing with because I am here.”

At his Seattle apartment, Lewis paints a landscape using Tilt Brush. Three sensors track the hand controller movements.
At his Seattle apartment, Lewis paints a landscape using Tilt Brush. Three sensors track the hand controller movements.

On virtual reality: “I saw on YouTube there was a Disney artist who did ‘Beauty and the Beast’ with Tilt Brush. I thought, ‘Wow, there’s a multidimensional way I can make my characters live.’

One thing that I wanted to explore in VR with my art is empathy, the feeling of putting people right there into what I feel like in terms of my body, what I go through and what other people go through too. Something VR can do really well is put you literally in a place where I see what you see. It’s something that is pretty exciting.

It can also be really therapeutic. People who are hospital-bound or bedridden can use it. You can be drawing or creating art in a bed or in a chair. There are things you can do if you don’t have the ability to do it in real life, you can try to do it in VR.”

Lewis says a marionette is his digital painting masterpiece.
Lewis says a marionette is his digital painting masterpiece.

On telling a story with his art: “In one story I was using digital paint brushes and drew a puppet. There was a candle half-burned down to a stub and I felt it told a story of an artist carving a puppet into the night. I have another one of an old-fashioned toy store and toy soldiers lined up with blocks and a carousel. I felt like when I was drawing it you could smell the old-timey smell you’d smell in an antique store. Like old books, that musty smell. If you turn on the carousel you can hear the music.”

At home, Lewis adjusts his prosthetics.
At home, Lewis adjusts his prosthetics.

On his prosthetics: “This is [an] inner liner that I put on. This protects my skin with padding and protection while inside the socket of the leg. It hugs me enough to know that it’s there, but not enough to be too tight. Prosthetics are more of an art form than a science; it’s art and medical. You can feel it. And if you get it wrong, you try it again. You adjust it till it feels right.

I have to play it by ear because if my legs aren’t up to it, it’s like, ‘Sorry, I can’t do it.’ It’s one of the more frustrating parts. I really want to do stuff with people, but sometimes my legs do not.’ ”

Lewis at Stateside restaurant on Capitol Hill.
Lewis at Stateside restaurant on Capitol Hill.

On approaching someone who is disabled: “Be real. Be up front. If you have questions just ask. Don’t be patronizing. Don’t be like, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with that.’ It doesn’t really help anyone. Just say, ‘Hey I noticed that your hands are different, may I ask you why? What’s the story behind that?’ For me it wasn’t a tragedy. I was born with it. I was born without fingers and thumbs the way the typical person is born with hands, legs and even feet. But for a lot of people, it is a tragedy so they may be not willing to confront it and be reminded of it. That’s fine. You have to be fine with the answer that person gives you. It’s nothing against you.”

Lewis and his friend Budi Mulyo at Stateside restaurant.
Lewis and his friend Budi Mulyo at Stateside restaurant.

On the language we use: “I think it could be transformed into something better; into something more enabling. There’s handicapable, differently-abled. I think they’re recently phasing out the handicap wheelchair signs to be more of an abled-bodied or active person. When people would see my wheelchair they would automatically think they have to push it. Like ‘No, you don’t need to push my wheelchair.’ Sometimes I may ask for help, but please don’t assume that I need the help.

I think an important thing for people to understand is that we’re here and nothing is going to be different. Nothing needs to be different unless we make a request. Maybe I’m in a wheelchair. Maybe I need to request a table that will accommodate a wheelchair, but that’s not a big deal. You just have to move things around a little. It’s not really that different from a person with a nut allergy. It’s a small thing that we know going in and we know the solution to.”

Lewis adjusts his prosthetics at Cal Andersen Park on Capitol Hill.
Lewis adjusts his prosthetics at Cal Andersen Park on Capitol Hill.

On healthcare: “I have a voice that can be loud, big and commanding. A voice that I kind of tailored because I had to talk to doctors and other people who thought they knew everything. I had to be loud or at least act in a way where I felt that they would hear me. All these doctors were talking over me and about me like I was some sort of racehorse: ‘Well how’s his teeth, how’s his muscles, how’s his feet?’ And I was like, ‘Hey I’m not a racehorse.’

When I go to the doctor, I tell them exactly what I have and need because I’m pretty in touch with my body at this point. And I’m in touch with what my body needs. When it comes to Obamacare, Medicare, Medicaid — none of that in itself can really stand up to something like a pair of legs, which run around $2,300. So if you don’t have good insurance, it can be half that amount or more. Some people need prosthetic knees that have computers in them and that can be around $40,000.”

Stairs are challenging. More places in Seattle, says Lewis, should be wheelchair accessible.
Stairs are challenging. More places in Seattle, says Lewis, should be wheelchair accessible.

On growing up with a disability: “Back when I was a child, I would be out there on the playground and playing with my friends; I would do all that. Back then I didn’t have my legs and I was on my knees so I put shoes on backward. My mom was talking out front with our neighbor, and I wanted to go outside, but the ground was all rock and stuff that would tear up my knees. So I thought ‘How do I go outside?’ I ended up grabbing my sister’s shoes and putting them on backward. That was my first time walking outside without being carried or in a wheelchair.”

Lewis plays a VR mystery game at Spooked in Seattle Tours and Museum at a recent Haloween VR event.
Lewis plays a VR mystery game at Spooked in Seattle Tours and Museum at a recent Haloween VR event.

On the challenges of creating with VR: “I’m definitely excited about VR, but one of the challenges I face are hand controls. The hand controls pose a challenge because I don’t have typical fingers and I have to figure out how to make it work for myself. I’m using my right hand to control the left controller.  I always try to adapt.”

Lewis shops for groceries at QFC on Capitol Hill.
Lewis shops for groceries at QFC on Capitol Hill.

On having a unique perspective of the world: “I’ve always seen the world from a different perspective. I’m short, like four-foot-five, and I get even shorter when I take off my legs. That means I need to climb up on counters by pulling myself. Because my hands are so different, I have to think about how to hold things. Simple things like holding a cup and a plate without dropping them. I have to do things in a way that is unique, so I get that opportunity to think differently. I see things and people differently. I see them in a way that makes everyone unique and it allows me to be more empathetic.”

Lewis stands atop boot print paintings on Capitol Hill. Prosthetics give him more freedom than a wheelchair. But he'll sometimes use a wheelchair when his legs are sore.
Lewis stands atop boot print paintings on Capitol Hill. Prosthetics give him more freedom than a wheelchair. But he’ll sometimes use a wheelchair when his legs are sore.

His advice to others who are disabled: “Remember that you are worth it. You are worth the best. You are worth getting that job that you deserve. You’re worth being respected by your peers. You are worth being respected by your superiors… Just because you don’t have the same normality as other people, that normality is only skin deep. There’s a lot of stuff that people deal with and are afraid to confront and push people down in order to push away what they feel is different and abnormal. If you can accept who you are, you can accept other people for who they are.”

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