Constable: Prizes add to palette of artist, disability advocate
By Burt Constable
There are many ways to describe 39-year-old Reveca Torres of Prospect Heights, an artist whose work and life are taking interesting turns.
"I identify as a woman. I identify as a person of color. I identify as a person with a disability," Torres says.
And now she can identify as an artist whose passion and hard work to spread awareness and create social justice for people with disabilities is winning recognition and prestigious awards.
During an online ceremony Monday on YouTube, Torres will receive a $25,000 grant from 3Arts, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for Chicago's women artists, artists of color and artists with disabilities in the performing, teaching, and visual arts.
"I've been following this organization for such a long time. This is such a privilege to get this award from 3Arts," Torres says. "It gives me opportunity and exposure being associated with the 3Arts family. It makes me feel like, 'Yes, I'm an artist, and I'm getting recognized.' The staff at 3Arts is so supportive."
She discovered that firsthand a few years ago while at the 3Arts award show to cheer a prizewinning friend. Torres was in her wheelchair and struggling with the bathroom door when a stranger opened it.
"We had a nice talk. It was an impactful interaction," Torres says. It was only when the awards program started that Torres realized her helper was on the stage -- Esther Grisham Grimm, the executive director of 3Arts.
"She's such a nice person," Torres says.
In 2018, Torres was named a 3Arts Fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she worked on several art projects, including a provocative piece that pays tribute to artist Frida Kahlo. Torres teamed with Mariam Paré, a Naperville artist who was paralyzed by a gunshot when she was a college art student, and Evanston photographer Tara Ahern, who has muscular dystrophy, to create the "Tres Fridas Project."
The famed Mexican artist Kahlo contracted polio as a child and later survived a bus crash that broke her back and caused other severe injuries that left her in pain for the rest of her life. "We felt a connection to her and were inspired by her work," Torres says. Torres and Paré used makeup, hairstyling and clothing to resemble Kahlo, and Ahern photographed a series of re-creations of famous works of art such as the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, The Birth of Venus and others, featuring people with disabilities.
Torres grew up in Des Plaines and was paralyzed at age 13 in a car crash near Guadalajara, Mexico, during a family vacation to see her grandmother. A truck swerved, forcing her family's van to skid off the road and roll down a ravine. Two of her siblings were thrown from the van, but she had the most severe injuries.
"It was the middle of nowhere," she says, remembering how her dad and a passerby loaded her into another vehicle and drove her to a clinic not equipped to handle her injuries. Eventually she was airlifted to a hospital in Houston, where she spent three weeks before being airlifted to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
She lost the use of her legs and has limited movement in her arms, hands and fingers. "I've figured out how to make it work over the years," says Torres, who lives independently but has daily help and paints by "weaving the paintbrush between my fingers."
"I think I've always been an artist. My whole life has been creative in some way or another," she says. Torres transferred from Wheeling High School to Palatine High School so she could study fashion design with teacher Sally McDavid, who taught her how she could use a sewing machine. Torres went on to Harper College in Palatine and became the first person with a spinal cord injury to earn a degree in fashion design. In 2004, she graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's degree in theater arts, with an emphasis in costume design.
Even as she advocates for people to share their experiences, Torres prefers to focus on her advocacy work instead of the honor she received last month when she was one of three inaugural recipients granted a $1 million Craig H. Neilsen Visionary Prize for her work using art as a tool for advocacy and social justice for people with disabilities.
Torres says her award money will allow her "to dream a bit with my artwork" and expand her work with Backbones, a charity she founded in 2009 that helps people with spinal cord injuries. Torres also is a co-director of ReelAbilities Film Festival Chicago, curator of art shows that showcase the work of people with disabilities, and New Mobility's 2016 Person of the Year.
"When I began to incorporate my experience as a person with a disability into my artwork, I felt I had more to say, and my art was more impactful," Torres says. The new awards cement her reputation as a role model.
"It's weird to think of myself as that," Torres says. "But I hope so."