Photos and Artworks by Rhiannon Salt (They/He)
**Content Warning: brief mentions of abuse and toxic relationships, mentions of dissociating and other symptoms of chronic illness and mental illnesses**
This article will highlight the moments when the CW is relevant, but regardless, please read at your own discretion.
Warmest of welcomes as we start off our Disability Pride (Month) series with the kind and genuine artist and makeup artist, Rhiannon Salt (they/he). I had the absolute pleasure of getting to know and talk to Rhiannon about our neurodivergence, their art, and his current studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. They are pursuing majors in Disability Studies and Human Development and a minor in Art while also working full-time.
When we weren’t discussing drawing, makeup, and being neuroqueer, we talked about the community-orientedness of being from the Midwest and of Midwestern culture. We shared our stories of dissociating, which included puzzles, makeup, and other activities, and we offered tools to each other to help with our fidgeting and overall well-being. I hope you enjoy reading our interview as much as I enjoyed interviewing Rhiannon.
Digital artwork imposing curvy bold yellow text over brightly colored rings. The text reads “WHO AND WHAT CAUSED YOU TO BELIEVE THAT THE PRESENCE OF ANOTHER’S GREATNESS MEANS THE ABSENCE OF YOUR OWN?” Artwork by Rhiannon Salt.
Giulianna Vicente: If you don’t mind giving a little intro to yourself, that would be great!
Rhiannon Salt: Hello, my name is Rhiannon, my pronouns are they/he and I guess a little bit about myself… Currently I’m majoring in Disability Studies and Human Development, and then minoring in Art. I also do a bunch of different types of art, from what’s on my face makeup-wise [to] a lot of visuals and writing on things like mental health, radical vulnerability…talking about my experiences being chronically sick in this very complicated healthcare system, and just empowerment in general. I hope whoever is reading this is having a great day. If you’re not, I hope there’s some time for rest and rejoice.
GV: Do you mind telling me some of your identity descriptors?
RS: I identify as nonbinary, also disabled and chronically sick and pansexual. More specifically, I am part of the autistic and ADHD community and then also OCD. And then I have POT syndrome, a couple of other vascular stuff, endometriosis, and generally chronic pain. Talking about those intersecting experiences informs my work as well.
GV: You’re in college right now, where are you based?
RS: I’m in Chicago and I go to UIC (University of Illinois, Chicago).
GV: What year are you?
RS: Oh, God. Well…I think I’m the Senior. I’ve been doing school part-time because I have to work full-time, too.
GV: King behavior. You mentioned an Art minor, your makeup is fabulous, and your whole page is mostly about your art…What got you into art?
RS: Oh, thank you for asking…I’ve always been drawing, which I feel like is a cliché thing to say, but like truly. My dad told me when I was 6, I would wake up at 6 am, doing the rise and grind mindset that I hate presently. I would draw him a picture, and then I would go make breakfast, and do my silly little tasks throughout the day… I used drawing as a big vessel throughout school, being undiagnosed ADHD, just to focus, like my notebooks would be full of botanical stuff, etcetera that I would just draw to be able to have one tiny milligram of serotonin and focus that I naturally lack.
But I think what made art stick with me was seeing very early on how it can be a vessel for communication. Of course, when some visual artists are like “Visual arts is the only way to communicate” I’m like NO ‘cause not everybody can perceive visuals, but it’s a big one, and it’s a great one. And it helped me, especially being on the Internet in high school, I’m 23 now, but having access to Instagram when I was like 14 was revolutionary for me because I was able to see — growing up where I did in rural Illinois, and because of some family situations — that it’s okay to express yourself and you will receive love for that, that things can be discussed and new ideas and conversations and the way we think about things can change and evolve through sharing art. I was like “Holy shit, that’s amazing! Brain blast!” So I think that’s what has really made me stick with the visual art end of things. It’s just being very much so benefited by the fact that art exists and then wanting to contribute to that conversation.
GV: Thanks for sharing. You have a lot of stuff with Kirby. Is that a special interest? What got you into Kirby?
RS: So literally what got me into Kirby was seeing the memes of Kirby. I never played the game before. In quarantine, I was on my phone, and I was like, “Who is this little pink ball that can do everything?” In 2020, or 2021, I saw him, and I was like, “This is my special interest.” I had never had this type of behavior, but I was like, “This is me, and I wanna be everything that this pink ball can be,” just fully involved chaos. And then, playing [the] new Kirby game my physical reaction was like, “Oh, my God, I’m seeing, like, Batman on the screen for the first time.” I was like “What is going on with me, like, why am I so emotional?!” So, yeah, it’s a big hyperfixation.
Digital painting featuring the video game character Kirby sitting on a star and shouting out phrases written in pastel yellow bubble letters. The phrases read “PROUD OF MYSELF,” “KIND TO MYSELF,” SETTING + KEEPING BOUNDARIES,” “LOVING MYSELF,” “ADVOCATING FOR MYSELF WHEN I NEED REST + HELP,” “TRUSTING MYSELF,” “MY WORTH IS NOT IN MY PRODUCTIVITY,” and “REMINDING MYSELF OF MY TALENTS.” Artwork by Rhiannon Salt.
GV: For makeup, because we talked about art, when did you get into makeup, ‘cause I’ve also seen you have a lot of cool, very colorful looks?
**Content Warning: brief mentions of abuse and negative relationships with family and partners**
RS: Thank you. So I got into makeup very early… I’d say probably 10 when Tumblr was coming into the echelon. In the media I just saw so many different artists and styles — I was obsessed with magazines when I was younger, like I’d fasten my walls with Nylon and etcetera. **CW** I would sneak makeup onto the bus to wear at school, and then wash it off before I left in middle school because my dad is awesome, but my maternal side of the family, unfortunately, there were a lot of narcissistic abuse restrictions on how I could present myself…Sometimes I could not leave the house if I didn’t look a certain way, sort of thing. **End of CW** All that being said, makeup to me, specifically related to my gender, has just been a way for me to express gender euphoria and joy and I think also as an artist, too, I’m very tied to colors. Like right now, pink is the moment, probably will forever be my favorite color. But…also with having dissociation — which I now know is also not just mental health, but a part of having POT syndrome — being able to put on makeup day-to-day helps me differentiate the days and [reclaim them]. I was finally able to start doing makeup the way I wanted when I was like 16, because I [had] just shaved my head and I was like, “Oh, can’t stop me now,” and regardless of the comments (many, many, many comments) that I experience from that side of the family, I still just really felt empowered in it.
There was a point, though, because I think growing up with that, there is still that sort of dynamic in a household of parents trying to exert control on appearance. Regardless of where it stems from, and especially being socialized and internalizing what women are supposed to present as, you know…I think there was a process…from 18 to like 21 (and it’s still happening now) of trying to figure out how I actually want to present, and unlearning how I think I should present, and how people will accept me presenting a certain way.
**CW** I got out of a not-super-great relationship, where I think a lot of the codependency that happens from growing up that way can be triggered and I was like, “I actually don’t know the way that I want to look.” **End of CW** It was in the pandemic, like the start of it (and we’re still in the pandemic, of course) in 2020, and I was like “What the hell?…I’m tired of seeing these patterns that my little trauma brain is attaching to and like, I just wanna figure out what I want to look like and how I want to be as a person” and so I was like “Fuck it, let me get some makeup.” I’m just gonna each day try to do whatever I want in my face, and if I don’t like it, that’s okay. I can wash it off, but I should just try. That was from September 2020 to January 2021. I think I did it every single day for those ones and then I figured out how it just made me feel empowered each morning.
So I think just going through that process and using it as a form of empowering myself, and forcing myself to be like “Hey, I’m telling my trauma brain to go to bed. I wanna figure out how I want to present.” Then doing it, like it feels so liberating.
Digital illustration of a black and white mirror whose frame is made up of snakes and roses. In the center is red smallcaps text reading “ABLEISM IS NOT POETIC.” Artwork by Rhiannon Salt.
GV: That’s really awesome. Thank you for sharing…You mentioned gender euphoria, and I wanna ask about that within makeup because, especially the society we live in, unfortunately, makeup usually is very associated with femininity. How have you used makeup to bring you gender euphoria, or to affirm your own sense of gender?
RS: I’d say that my concept of how I define my gender identity in being non binary, I just do not feel attached to the concept of gender. Jokingly, I have described it as that I just feel like I’m an orb, floating around in this big, beautiful planet. I’m really grateful for everybody on the Internet who started using makeup just to express how they wanted to look day-to-day, outside of growing up with the “full contour, full face” every single day; seeing a shift was really helpful for me. I think being very attuned to color and sensory stuff, having autism has influenced that, and just really being enticed emotionally to color. My gender being an expression of who I am is tied to how I express myself in other fields, and because I’m so emotionally attached to art, I think those two intertwined in a way that is great for me to experience. So, for example, if one day I’m feeling like, “Oh, I’m just really euphoric from the color green, I’m gonna put that on my face,” and that just makes me feel overall in my presentation gender euphoria.
GV: So that being said, you kind of have both your art and your setting in disability (through your major and you being disabled yourself)…What does activism mean and look to you?
RS: So many different ways. I think what usually comes to mind with activism for folks is protesting and policy, which are incredibly important, but a lot of that is not accessible, and it could be accessible, but folks [who are not disabled] are still not making that happen, unfortunately. Some folks are and that’s awesome, but unfortunately it’s still not a normalized thing to have, for example, protest being an accessible space. And so I think it’s also really important, when talking about activism, to also acknowledge mutual aid networks and community care. It’s a huge one in terms of activism, for example, like being there when a friend is trying to leave a not-so-great situation. That’s activism, too. Doing it in your local area and like interpersonal relationships and just really centering care is so important. I think activism to me is, at a base level, trying to help people with what their needs are, that are named by them, and not like an assumed need in whatever way that might manifest. It could be money, spending time with people, driving somebody to their doctor’s appointment… Just providing resources where someone might need it to make the world we want to see.
GV: Thank you for sharing. So of course, I “stalked” your Instagram page and…I think one of your really big pieces is the butterfly piece…about disability. How do you use your art for activism/advocacy/whatever you want to call it?
RS: Thank you and thank you for just acknowledging that piece, I appreciate it. In a lot of different ways…the first thing that comes to mind is the power of sharing your story, and not to call them like affirmation phrases, but I think there is a lot of power to quick phrases that can be very potent in terms of sharing an idea, or like being a digital hug in a way… And then, in addition to that, I’ve throughout the years [used] art…to help with direct mutual aid to people who need help, to get a medical procedure or paying bills, or just needing funds for whatever to try to help redistribute, to directly support people. I think with art — the way that our society is set up — and talking about mental health, disability, and anybody’s vulnerable experience, it is unfortunately still not supported as something that’s important in mainstream society. And what is supported are narratives that are not by people who actually have been through “X Y and Z” thing…With that being present and what a lot of people have grown up with, I think having art can make the distance that some people need to process different things, because talking or communicating in the way that is most accessible to another person can be really scary when you’ve grown up with or just seen through the media that sharing your emotions is a no-go. So, art kind of provides that distance where it’s like, “Oh, cool! I don’t know if I’m ready to hear this from another person, or maybe I don’t have those people in my life right now, but I saw this thing, thank you to the person who made it.”
Digital print featuring an abundance of colorful hearts emanating from a multi-colored butterfly surrounded by playful shapes. Pastel pink-purple text outlined in black reads “YOU DESERVE TO HOLD YOURSELF WITH OVERFLOWING LOVE AND PRIDE.” Artwork by Rhiannon Salt.
GV: What are your feelings towards disability pride month?
RS: Okay, it’s complicated…So, if we’re talking about recognizing, for example, like LGBTQIA+ pride month, I understand that having a specific month is really important for people who are not a part of the community to recognize it…I also support just celebrating disability because we are told in so many facets [to hide], from going to the doctors [to] seeing media about our disabilities not being portrayed correctly and often [villainizing]. I think that it’s really important to have a space for joy and celebration.
I will say, though, I am concerned about it being commercialized by people who are not disabled. Such as in the way of repeating the cycles of Autism Speaks and every large nonprofit that was funded/created by people who don’t have the disability, and then the corporations putting money towards those folks instead of directly to people who are disabled. That’s a concern of mine…I also know that there’s been Disability Pride parades in Chicago, which is awesome, but I do know that there is a pattern…We have two different parades in Chicago. The major pride parade is one that a lot of people go to, but also a lot of people don’t because it’s super white and it’s not accessible.
And so there’s also that aspect that — this is not my original thought, just repeating the knowledge of folks that I’ve been grateful to learn from — we need to be centering the most marginalized…because the perception of Disability Pride has been for — and this is not to discount anybody’s disability — like white, cis, hetero people who are wheelchair users, and everybody else is still trying to be included in pride celebrations, too…Yeah, I think [Disability Pride Month] is important, but also asterisks to it.
Digital print featuring an abundance of colorful hearts emanating from a multi-colored butterfly surrounded by playful shapes. Pastel pink-purple text outlined in black reads “TO DISABLED FOLKS WHO DON’T FEEL SAFE AT PRIDE: YOUR ANGER AND PAIN IS VALID.” Artwork by Rhiannon Salt.
Author: Giulianna Vicente (She/Her)
Copy Editors: Christopher Ikonomou (Xe/He), Emma Blakely (They/She/He)