Happy New Year! We’re back with a new installment in our series of interviews with role models in dwarfism communities. We spoke to artist and academic, Dr Debra Keenahan. For more information, check out her excellent interview with ABC and read her essay ‘The female dwarf, disability, and beauty’.
Please introduce yourself: who are you and where are you from?
I am Debra Keenahan. I am Australian and I live in one of the most western suburbs of Sydney, at the base of the Blue Mountains, on the Nepean River.
And what do you do?
I do a number of seemingly quite different things. I am a registered psychologist and I am employed at Western Sydney University as an academic in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology, in the area of Humanitarian and Development Studies. The focus of my teaching is in the subject of Human Rights and Peace Studies. But I am also an artist and I am currently completing my second PhD in Visual Arts on the subject of the Disability Aesthetic. My first PhD was in Psychology on the subject of Dehumanization.
Do you enjoy it?
My passion is my art and capturing the Disability Aesthetic. I particularly love painting – watercolour and acrylics. Though I have recently completed a life-size sculpture and thoroughly enjoyed the process, I am now venturing into the field of cinematics. I also love teaching, especially when the students are engaged and motivated. But even if the students are not so engaged, then finding ways and means of hooking their interest can be challenging but very rewarding, if I am successful.
How did you end up doing it?
I came to the study of psychology through attending a cricket match! I went to a match between Australia and the West Indies (1979). The Windies were a magnificent team and were readily able to give Australia a lesson in how to play the game. Unfortunately, me and my family were sat in front of a young family who became increasingly emotional and vocal as the game proceeded. As it became evident the Windies would win easily, the children behind us starting screaming racial insults and their father found it amusing – me and my family found it distressing. I decided then and there to study racism. As my academic studies progressed I realised the problem was much broader than racism, but, rather, human beings treating other human beings as less-than-human – dehumanization. As regards visual arts, all my life I have enjoyed painting and drawing – and I have always drawn people. I studied art for my HSC (Higher School Certificate), however, I was not encouraged to further this field of study as it was not seen (mistakenly) as providing adequate employment opportunities in comparison to psychology. In 2012 I commenced a serious sea-change in my life and decided to follow my artistic passion. I did a drawing class at the local Community College. The teacher encouraged me to further my studies. I enrolled in Australia’s oldest art school – Julian Ashton’s. My interest still remained in representing the human figure. I soon realised I could marry my interest in psychology with my passion for art in the study of the Disability Aesthetic.
If you were 21 again, would you do something different?
I am always a little reticent and philosophical about such a question because it hints at regrets/advice giving and hindsight is always 20/20. But, having learnt through experience, there is much I would do differently (e.g., exercise more, never buy cheap shoes, always wear sunscreen – and I would truly do these things). However, in all seriousness, if I did anything different, it would be to follow my passion for art more ardently and much sooner.
What’s the best thing about your job?
There are two good things about my job as an academic – one is the enjoyment of witnessing people becoming engaged in the process of learning; and the other is being able to do research on the Disability Aesthetic.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?
This is a hard question to answer because I have enjoyed every job I’ve had. But without hesitation, I can say that the worst part of all the jobs I’ve had is administrative work, in particular – writing reports.
What are the best and worst aspects about being small?
This is perhaps the hardest question of all because all aspects of life bring with them positives and negatives. But ironically, I would say that as regards my stature, the positives and negatives are one and the same – and that is the attention garnered from looking different. Sometimes that attention can be positive in the sense of being memorable and not easily forgotten and in being so, such positive attention can enable (in my case) to be an effective advocate. But sometimes the attention can be negative as in the example of being insulted or bullied. It is really a matter of the attitude (of others) that accompanies the attention received.
If you could pass on one piece of advice to your teenage self what would that be?
Follow your passion in your career, because in following your passion you will have the energy, interest, and focus for your work which is the best possibility for developing a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Which living person do you most admire and why?
Barack Obama – because he overcame significant prejudicial barriers to achieve his position of leadership; his leadership style focussed upon equality and inclusion; and his behaviour was always dignified without pretension.
How do you like to pass the time, outside of work?
With my family going to art exhibitions, the theatre and watching movies. But I also love to read novels.
What’s your favourite book?
Joseph Heller – Catch-22, Shakespeare, Patricia Cornwell, Jodi Picoult, Tolkien, Spike Milligan – Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, Terry Pratchett – The Discworld Series.
What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?
My daughter. Being a parent has been the greatest experience. It is particularly the act of nurturing that is most rewarding.
When your time comes, how would you like to be remembered?
As someone who acted with integrity, care and respect for all people and who hopefully made a positive difference.