For Immediate Release

Grand Rapids Art Museum Presents ArtPrize 2021 Exhibition with Disability Arts Organization, DisArt

A collaboration with DisArt and artist Oaklee Thiele, the My Dearest Friends Project brings the presence of the disability community to downtown Grand Rapids through a large-scale outdoor installation

GRAND RAPIDS, MI, August 9, 2021 — The Grand Rapids Art Museum (GRAM), DisArt, and protest artist Oaklee Thiele today announced the September 16 opening of ArtPrize 2021: My Dearest Friends Project. The outdoor exhibition at GRAM will be presented on the Museum’s exterior through large-scale black-and-white illustrations and statements about of the lived experience of disability throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including those of pride, isolation, discrimination, and community-making.

For the past few years, GRAM and DisArt have sought to find an exhibition project to collaborate on. We are so pleased and proud to be presenting My Dearest Friends Project during ArtPrize 2021,” stated GRAM Chief Curator Ron Platt. We were immediately won over by Oaklee’s premise and visual innovation, and we’re confident that the piece’s daring and stunning presentation on all four sides of the Museum’s exterior will strike a deep chord with the public.” 

Created by and for the disability community, My Dearest Friends was launched by co-creators Thiele and DisArt in March 2020 through an open call on Instagram. To date, the project has received nearly 400 submissions from the U.S. and around the world. Thiele responds to submissions by creating a black and white image, some of which incorporate the respondents’ own words.

I am so honored to exhibit at an institution like the Grand Rapids Art Museum. GRAM’s large-scale windows allow for the images to be produced at a massive scale which in turn will make the disabled presence unavoidable in the heart of Grand Rapids,” added Artist Oaklee Thiele. This September, disability culture will take center stage. The My Dearest Friends Project celebrates disabled life during a time in which the disability community has experienced significant loss as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

For ArtPrize at GRAM, a selection of Thiele’s striking illustrations will be transformed into dramatic 25’ handsewn banners and vinyl sheets on the Museum’s windows that will be installed on all four sides of the building. 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.

DisArt Co-Director Christopher Smit commented, We are so thrilled to be able to present this work with our partners at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Over the past several months we have been able to create a very close community of collaborators, one that prioritizes the power of art and the promise of community.”

DisArt Co-Director Jill Vyn added, All of us at the My Dearest Friends Project are grateful to the staff of the Grand Rapids Art Museum for working tirelessly with us to make sure that this exhibition is accessible, impactful, and memorable. This exhibition is progress toward creating an accessible, inclusive city.”

The 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 the disability community. 

My Dearest Friends continues to create a space for support and togetherness through the shared experiences of the disability community. The project has collected submissions from disabled people living across the United States, Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe, Germany, and South America. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to share their voice and submit an entry to My Dearest Friends through a written, audio, or video submission. Learn more at:

The project will be on view at GRAM through October 31, and visitors may vote for My Dearest Friends during the run of ArtPrize. The project has multiple satellite locations throughout the city, including the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University, and Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. Each location will have a select number of black and white window coverings that illustrate the collected stories from their specific communities. 

In conjunction with the exhibition, the Museum is hosting several collaborative events with DisArt and Thiele. Exhibition, project submission, and event information can be found at

Related Events:

Member Exhibition Opening: ArtPrize 2021
Wednesday, September 15
6 pm – 9 pm
Free, GRAM Member Event
Open captioning and ASL interpretation will be provided
Grand Rapids Art Museum, Auditorium

Members and their guests are invited to celebrate the opening of ArtPrize at GRAM. Enjoy an early viewing of the exhibition, a panel discussion with DisArt and artist Oaklee Thiele, and Ron Platt, moderated by Dr. Elizabeth VanArragon. The panel discussion will begin at 7 pm and seating will be first come, first served. For those who cannot attend in person, the discussion will be livestreamed with closed captioning.

My Dearest Friends Project Community Conversation
Thursday, September 23
6 pm — 7 pm
Free, Open to the Public
Open captioning and ASL interpretation will be provided
Grand Rapids Art Museum, Auditorium
Moderated by Todd Herring from Common Notice

Join us for a free and exciting evening of conversation about the My Dearest Friends exhibition hosted by the Grand Rapids Art Museum. As a collection of voices from the disability community, this project translates and communicates the disabled experience of the pandemic. Join us for an important conversation of equity, inclusion, and community-making in Grand Rapids and beyond.

Claim & Rebuild: A Disability Pride Rally
Sunday, September 26
2 pm – 5 pm
Free, Open to the Public
Open captioning, ASL interpretation, and outdoor seating will be provided

The My Dearest Friends Project and DisArt, in partnership with GRAM, are hosting an accessible disability pride rally on the terrace of the Museum. The gathering will be an immersive, interactive, and accessible event where audiences can celebrate and experience disability culture. 

About the Grand Rapids Art Museum
Connecting people through art, creativity, and design. Established in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids, the art museum is internationally known for its distinguished design and LEED® Gold certified status. Established in 1910 as the Grand Rapids Art Association, GRAM has grown to include more than 5,000 works of art, including American and European 19th and 20th-century painting and sculpture and more than 3,000 works on paper. Embracing the city’s legacy as a leading center of design and manufacturing, GRAM has a growing collection in the area of design and modern craft.

For museum hours and admission fees, visit

About 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. Learn more at

About DisArt
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. Learn more at

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