ArtPrize 2021 at GRAM:
My Dearest Friends Project

Sep 16, 2021 — Oct 31, 2021
Building Exterior

The Grand Rapids Art Museum is collaborating with artist Oaklee Thiele and the Grand Rapids based Disability Arts organization DisArt to bring the My Dearest Friends Project to Grand Rapids during ArtPrize 2021.

About the Exhibition

Created by and for the disability community, My Dearest Friends was launched by Thiele and DisArt in March 2020 with an Instagram post inviting disabled people from around the world to share their experiences of marginalization, isolation, and discrimination due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To date, the project has received over 350 submissions from the U.S. and around the world. Thiele responds to each submission by creating a black and white image, some of which incorporate the respondents’ own words.

For ArtPrize at GRAM, a selection of Thiele’s striking illustrations will be transformed into dramatic, large-scale banners and panels that will be installed on all four sides of the museum’s exterior. This outdoor presentation brings the personal and political presence of the disability community to the heart of downtown Grand Rapids. Symbolically, the monumental scale of the project will act as an exaggerated, aesthetic counterbalance to the lack of disability presence in cities across the country.

My Dearest Friends Project seeks reaction and response. Disabled people are often spoken for, prompting the phrase nothing about us, without us.” The growing collection of testimonies from disabled people for this project offer insight into the complex and varying experiences of physical and mental differences. The project aims to create a sense of solace and togetherness in the collective experiences of the disability community.

Oaklee Thiele

After acquiring multiple disabilities in her early twenties, Oaklee Thiele began utilizing her artistic platform to chronicle life from the disabled perspective. Her work centers on invisible chronic illness, the intimate bond she has formed with her service dog, Coco, and coming to terms with the early deterioration of mind and body. As her health continues to decline, Thiele develops custom-made tools to allow her to continue creating large-scale abstracted works.


DisArt is a production company and arts and culture organization that focuses its energy on creating public art events that cultivate and communicate a disability culture. All of this work presents the highest quality, contemporary art done by disabled artists from around the world. DisArt believes that expressions of a disability cultural identity can transform society from awareness to understanding to belonging, creating a community that enjoys the full and equitable participation of all disabled people

Submit your Entry

The My Dearest Friends project has collected submissions from our disability community living across the United States, Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe, Germany, and South America. Please share your voice.

    Reflect: Think about your experiences as a disabled person during the COVID-19 pandemic and what you want to share with your disability community.

    Create: Start your submission with My Dearest Friends” and end with your first name or an alias. Our Submission Guidelines: Written Max. 280 characters Audio Max. 30 seconds Video Max. 30 seconds (MP4, MOV)

    Send: Email your submission to or Mail a letter to DisArt P.O. Box 3467 Grand Rapids, MI 49501.

    Follow: Follow us on social media to see all published submissions at @mydearestfriendsproject

    Share: Invite someone else to participate in this project and tag yourself on social media once your submission is published.

Thank you to our sponsors

  • Wege Foundation
  • James and Mary Nelson
  • Greg and Meg Willit
  • Eenhoorn, LLC.
  • Haworth, Inc.
  • Dirk and June Hoffius
Lead Exhibition Society Sponsor: