Sara Hendren is an artist, researcher and author who explores how the built world affects the lived experience of disability. Her work has included public works of art for collaborations and design projects, including the creation of a lectern for people of short stature, a navigation stick that plays music, and a series of ramps for the disabled dancer and choreographer Alice Sheppard. She has researched and written on adaptive technology, homemade prostheses, inclusive architecture and other topics in accessible design, including in her book from 2020, What can a body do? At the Olin College of Engineering in Needham, Massachusetts, she leads a class – and a kind of test kitchen – on design for the disabled called “Investigating Normal.” Her efforts respond to physical realities and individual dreams; they are both practical and resonant.
As Hendren tells us ART news, she has a persistent interest in straightforward mechanisms such as the handle, pulley and especially the inclined plane. Developing a stage set for Sheppard using a wheelchair was a spin-off of Hendren’s long-running “Slope: Intercept” project, which began in 2013 when she designed a modular set of wooden ramps – designed for use by both wheelchair users and skateboarders – for single steps entrances.
Sheppard was fascinated by that project and approached Hendren in 2015 about designing a large-scale ramp for dance on stage. Around the same time, Olin professor Yevgeniya Zastavker asked Hendren to come up with a challenge for her introductory physics class. Hendren immediately got Zastavker and her students to collaborate with the dancer to create a scene that could facilitate new expressions.
To begin with, Sheppard led the group on a tour of Olin’s grounds and its existing ramps. The students then borrowed hardwood floor tiles from the college dance club to create a temporary dance room for Sheppard and made a series of wooden ramp prototypes of various dimensions that she could try. The dancer also experimented with the set of ramps that Hendren had previously designed for “Slope: Intercept,” demonstrating her turns and knocks for future ramp designers.
To plan the scene, students made models with paper, computer-aided design (CAD) programs, and 3D printers. They Skyped with Sheppard, who also made several visits to campus. Under the guidance of their professors and through the work of several late nights, they built a descending wooden structure measuring almost 24 square meters in area.
The building challenged different students in different ways; some tried a jigsaw for the first time. Others learned to use a store bot – a computer-controlled router. With this system, Hendren says, “[you] can design something in a digital platform and then lead it to the machine and it will cut it for you with a level of precision that used to be limited to large scale production. . . That’s what the students used to get Alice’s project done, especially to get. . . curves just right. “
Sheppard returned with her dance partner, Laurel Lawson, to perform on the newly built structure. After this initial race, the ramp was adopted as a key dance environment for Kinetic Light, the handicap art ensemble Sheppard leads along with Lawson and Michael Maag, and became the framework for Descent, Kinetic Lights’ first tour production. “IN Descent“Sheppard says,” [Lawson] and I learned to listen to what the ramp curves and gradients showed us, by building new performance techniques and specifically choreographic vocabulary all the way.
The Olin project made Hendren imagine and design a smaller, portable ramp set for Sheppard. In collaboration with Olin alumni designer Adit Dhanushkodi, she designed two small ramps, a medium-sized ramp, a large ramp and interlocking dance tiles. Hendren was already on her way to the Seoul Mediacity Biennale 2016 to present structures from “Slope: Intercept”, and Sheppard joined her. South Korean designer Giho Yang designed the portable dance set in Seoul, and Sheppard used it in the construction of a solo piece called “Under Momentum”.
Hendren says several people using wheelchairs attended Sheppard’s performance in Seoul. “We had a number of engagements with disability activists and advocates,” she says. “That kind of encounter is what I love most in a work: When the material becomes a springboard for people to find each other in a cozy way.”
A duet version of “Under Momentum” has been performed on the portable ramp set at the Whitney Museum of Art, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and other venues, and the large ramped stage set and smaller ramp set are both still integrated into the Kinetic Lights repertoire.
Featured image: Alice Sheppard and Laurel Lawson rehearse on a new wooden dance ramp with several planes. Sheppard, a multi-racist black woman with coffee-colored skin, lies on her back across a sloping wooden slope, her wheelchair wheel pointing upwards and angled slightly to the side. Her head rests along the edge of the ramp. Lawson, a white woman, lies on her back on a flat plane made of wood, her body and chair perpendicular to and just below Sheppard. Lawson’s arms fall backwards on the floor behind her.
Image 1: A white, rectangular paper model of a dance floor with curved edges. The model is made of perpendicular, intersecting strips of cut paper and contains several slopes. The model was used to design a large wooden dance ramp at Olin College of Engineering.
Image 2: On a wooden ramp with a 45-degree incline, Laurel Lawson, a white woman, drives her chair uphill and comes face to face with Alice Sheppard, a multiracial black woman with coffee-colored skin who comes downhill on her knees.
Image 3: Laurel Lawson, a white woman, balancing on Alice Sheppard’s footplate with arms spread, wheels spinning. Alice, a multiracial black woman with coffee-colored skin, opens her arms wide to receive her in an embrace. A huge ramp and starry sky fill the background; their wheelchair wheels shine in the light.