a conversation with Rosa Lee Timm
Meet Rosa Lee Timm, a teacher and ASL performer well known in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community for her talent in music and poetry. This is her story inspired by art. Watch the video interview below!
“…I’m the mother of two children, a deaf boy and a hearing girl. My son, who is the older one, is a student at the California School for the Deaf at Fremont (CSDF). I’m a teacher and performer and I think those are the two roles I most identify with.
I was born in California and at 3 years old I began to travel quite a bit. It’s interesting to me that at 37 years old I came full circle and ended up back here in California.
The most impactful years of my upbringing were spent in Indiana. I went to school and graduated there and then I attended the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in New York. I got a degree in social work, then a graduate degree in counseling in Oregon. I worked in vocational rehabilitation for a while but it didn’t suit me, and then my journey led me to CSDF and a job teaching American Sign Language (ASL). It’s been three years now teaching full time and I really enjoy it.
Otherwise, about two or three times a month, I perform in a one woman show. That began in 2004 so, if my math is correct, I’ve been doing this for about 11 years!”
So how did you first get into performing on stage?
I first got the taste for performance at age 14 at the Youth Leadership Camp. My drama instructor was Mark Wood, now well known for producing and writing ASL films. He was my first actual drama teacher and challenged me to stand in front of a crowd. I was so shy at the time! But it was a breakthrough for me when I realized it wasn’t so bad. I’ve been hooked ever since. I’ve been involved in stage performances and ensemble pieces. I founded a performance group at RIT called “Dangerous Signs” and we did a wide variety of things including comedy, skits, music, dance, and so on. In the midst of the stresses of college life, school–relationships–performance was my therapy.
Once we graduated, our team dispersed, I had to figure out what was next for me—and that was my one woman show. That was a way for me to continue my therapy, to channel my thoughts and emotions into an expression, a viewpoint, and it usually involved comedy. Comedy is my strong suit, as is music and performing in general. I’ve been immersed in that world ever since.
When an opportunity to get into film came along, I was chosen by none other than Mark Wood! My first film experience was Versa Effect, in which I was paired with Russell Harvard, and it was unbelievable. Russell is such a talented actor. He understands the world of film, whereas I am predominantly a stage actor. These are completely different animals. He taught me techniques and tools that enabled me to feel a greater sense of control over how I wanted to express myself. On stage, you rehearse often until you have a set and repeatable way of doing things for show after show. For Russell, however, there were always many different ways one could approach a scene. That was such a challenge for me! But I enjoyed it so much. Since then, I’ve been making music videos and regularly performing my show. That’s where I’m at now.
In the past five years, I’ve begun to feel the itch for more progress, less of the same.
Who do you admire?
Hmm, that seems to change every year. I think it depends on where I happen to be at in my life. For the longest time, my mother was always the one I looked up to the most. It was her ability to deliver a message in a concise and powerfully direct way, never beating around the bush. When you see people meander in their expressions, you can feel a bit lost, or the impact is softened quite a bit. But my mother has a real talent for nailing every major point in a way that was undeniably clear and affecting. I’ve always admired that over the years. I’d like to think that I can accomplish the same. I’ve internalized her strengths and I can see them in my own performances.
Now, as far as models for art and expression in the arts community, there really aren’t many that I can name. Sadly, there aren’t many artists out there like me. When I look around for Deaf women of color with the same vision and the same passion, I find they are so very few. There aren’t enough people out there providing opportunities for our aspiring youth. That’s a struggle for many people of color. While we do see many successful artists in the Deaf community, the vast majority of them are white. I’m speaking of artists who are in the public eye, who are published, who make appearances on TV and film. They’re predominantly white, and typically male. You’ll find exceptions every once in a while, such as women like Marlee Matlin and others. But, by and large, we’re talking about white artists—and they are wonderful for having broken through major barriers for Deaf artists. Absolutely. It’s great. And I don’t mean to imply that we should want to see less of them. I’m saying their breakthroughs are valid but we do have enough examples of this now. My question is where are the people of color?
In the past five years, I’ve begun to feel the itch for more progress, less of the same. We’re becoming homogenized. Where’s the standout now? Where’s the artist with an unusual point-of-view and cultural background, who has a unique expression and voice that is all her own, something that brings us new ideas and perspectives? What I’m seeing feels like more of the same.
So how can we plant the seed for greater enthusiasm and involvement in the arts?
I think we need to make programs available for them. For instance, when I attended Youth Leadership Camp (YLC) that was my first experience in drama. Being on stage became an opportunity for me. I was pushed, encouraged, and given tools that allowed me to creatively play until I was completely immersed in this lifestyle. That being said, YLC itself is predominantly white as well. That is, it’s owned and operated largely by white people. So, what I mean is that it’s not designed with people of color in mind. It’s a camp, and it’s not as though it must be tailored to every cultural need but when it comes to feeling safe, feeling solidarity, having personal growth, being able to express yourself freely, feeling like you are in your element, with shared experiences: there hasn’t been a space for that for Deaf students of color. That’s why that camp for Deaf Youth of Color was established not long ago. That’s one of the few programs that it would be nice to have more of. I mean, imagine a drama program for students of color, something specific to their needs
You’re so well known for your signed music videos on YouTube. It seems that signed music videos in general have become very popular. How do you feel about that?
My work in music videos became bigger than I expected. I have to admit I hadn’t really given it that much thought. It was more like my hobby. When these videos went viral, I began to notice a lot of other videos performed by sign language students as part of their homework assignments. ASL teachers started using that as a way to get students excited about the language. It became so popular. But seeing all of this now gives me a kind of “music video exhaustion.” It feels like there’s an incredible amount of videos out there—and that’s left me feeling divided about this kind of popularity.
There’s the ASL field and the interpreting field and they’re definitely not the same. In one field, you study the language, whereas in the other field you study how to transfer information from one language to another. You study how the process works mentally, how to manage between forms, and many other things including setting and context. Interpreting has its own curriculum geared specifically on how move from ASL to English and vice versa. On the other hand, the study of ASL is not about its translation into English. It’s a study of ASL, simply put, about its structure, its grammar, and everything that’s involved in its proper expression. The trouble is that people tend to conflate the two fields into one thing when they make signed music videos. So people interpret the words into ASL without any skills in ASL. This is a premature leap.
They sign because they enjoy the act of signing itself but do they realize they’re also incorporating many other considerations? As you interpret, you need to step back from the phrasing and grasp the underlying concepts, and not only that you need to figure out whether you’re expressing simply what you’ve heard, or expressing what you’ve envisioned. Often, they’re expressing exactly what they’ve heard, meaning if you were to turn off the audio and watch only the signs it wouldn’t make sense. That’s because they’re simply expressing the song in the same way they heard it, and it makes sense to them because they’ve heard it. They’re trying to express it in a beautiful and artful way but the context and the overall content are unclear.
So the question is who is this benefitting? It’s the performer herself, enjoying it as an activity. And it’s fun, yes, it’s fun. But in the long term, if we’re looking at the big picture, what impact is this having on the language? How does this impact our community? How we interface with the hearing world, how our culture and history are represented, all of this have become watered down. It’s become a novelty, a fun experience. But, wait a minute, there’s so much history behind this. We’ve fought for so long just to get ASL recognized as a language. We’ve fought just to get ASL to be allowed in schools. We’ve come a long way to get to this point at which we are finally able to have ASL programs and classes. We want to keep our focus on celebrating and preserving this language.
We’ve come a long way to get to this point at which we are finally able to have ASL programs and classes. We want to keep our focus on celebrating and preserving this language.
Interpreting feels like the next level after this kind of deep appreciation for the heritage of ASL. If you want to sign music, wait until you’ve graduated out of a program and you’ve internalized this understanding, until you’ve thought about cultural appropriation and all the tools you need to be aware of. There are many interpreters who appropriate our culture, who live in the spotlight and earn money and fame from it. If you had a strong cultural education, you would understand your place in our world and how best to celebrate ASL, how to use your skills to benefit the Deaf community. Many have missed that important step in learning ASL. They jump straight to interpreting and signing without that knowledge and they miss the point.
That’s what frustrates me about the popularity of signed music videos. And I’m a part of that factory because I create signed music videos myself! I feel that I’ve become more responsible now with how I model my work and how I present myself. I give more thought to the process now and the more I think about it, the more frustrated I get. There’s not enough training programs and exposure surrounding the creation of signed music videos. There’s also not a lot of discussion of what’s acceptable and what’s insulting.
Of the typical Deaf-owned talent shows I see, something like eighty-five or ninety percent consist of signed songs. What talent are you trying to express by doing this? That you can hear music? That seems to defeat the purpose of a Deaf talent show. Are you saying your skill is in translating from English to ASL? My point is, what talent are you trying to express? Often, people will say “I can hear this music and isn’t it fun to express it in such a pretty way.” With that sort of thinking, I believe we lose the core of our language and our culture.
The odd thing is I love music! It’s my passion. I grew up in a Deaf family, my first language is ASL. I love music. I founded a Deaf music camp. What I really want to explore is the question of WHAT IS DEAF MUSIC? What does music mean to the Deaf? We’ve been borrowing our definitions from the hearing world. But what is uniquely our own? I want to discover that—because every culture has one. Any culture you can think of has some form of music that uniquely reflects their language and their culture. The Deaf have this too! But we haven’t had enough opportunities to analyze this, to come together and unpack what’s truly ours and not derivative. Once we boil it down to that essential element, we can expand on it, and perhaps make more YouTube videos about THAT!
That’s what I want. I think that’s where I’m at now.
I appreciate signed music because as with most songs it’s difficult to catch everything being said. While with signed songs I can appreciate the music more through the beautiful ASL expression. Conversely, there are some ASL music videos that, I’m sorry, but are reminiscent of unclear, static-filled television shows with a poor antenna signal where I’m only able to catch a few concepts. Many of these videos require a great deal of work to understand.
That’s where I am now. As it stands, ASL music videos are very popular. Now that the excitement and awareness has increased, it’s time to have a discussion around how to filter through the work. What are our intentions; where are we coming from? What message are we trying to impress and spread? How can we, as a community embrace that?
What are some experiences, successes or failures, which have led you to where you are now?
There have been times when I’ve had big ideas and dreams, and unfortunately not everyone shares that vision. I established Liberty Road Productions some time ago, in the hopes that Deaf female artists would organize. At that time male artists dominated, and I wanted to organize Deaf women and Deaf women of color. At the time we focused on Deaf women and we didn’t share the motivations, the same vision and eventually the group folded. I don’t consider it a failure; more of a “back-to-the-drawing-board” regroup. How are we to gather as Deaf women, celebrate one another without competition? How can we make one another feel safe? Most artists are very selfish with their work; it’s their hard work and they’re afraid someone may steal it and capitalize on their work. It has a lot to do with trust – do you trust me to share your work? No.
Art is very personal, especially within the Deaf community. There is such a small number of artists who want to see individual success and so they are less inclined to share with others. My goal was to bring them together, and that’s tough. Do I consider that a failure? No. It was a learning experience. It taught me how to play the game, how to make artists feel safe, and how to work together in a way that doesn’t threaten to usurp work. There was a lot of back and forth and discussion in the formation of trust. Establishing the organization was not a quick endeavor; it was less of a failure and more of a bump in the road, from which I learned a lot.
Art is very personal, especially within the Deaf community…My goal was to bring [Deaf artists] together.
The next success I encountered was establishing KissFist magazine, another avenue to bring artists together. Initially this idea was born through the common interests my brother, Frank, and I share – the sharing and publication of art. The idea was to bring the community together, pair Deaf artists with the ability to publish their work. My role was to recruit artists and encourage them to share their work. Inherent in that that is the art of making artists feel safe in sharing their work with us. We were able to publish twelve issues – it was a success! We brought the community together in print, maybe not physically, but in print. People began to realize the range of talent and the different mediums available within the community. It was finally a validation of the artists’ work; they were recognized for their talent. We never made a profit from the issues. We found that was the first step in establishing trust, the next was to bring their art to print successfully and then as that trust was established we would ask for more work for subsequent issues. After several issues, we couldn’t turn away work – it was overwhelming! It was nice… that, for me, was a success.
How can young artists define themselves through their art rather than their “Deafness? “
I first think of Tate Tullier – a Deaf photographer. He has reached hearing celebrity status – meaning, his following includes many celebrities such as a Desperate Housewives star and reality TV stars because his work speaks for itself. He doesn’t market himself as a Deaf photographer. Initially he marketed himself as a wedding photographer and is well known for weddings. Often he is contacted by people and then they find out he is Deaf. The work speaks for itself and as a result people are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. His Deafness has become secondary to his work OR his work supersedes his Deafness. Tate has tremendous people skills; he’s gregarious and makes clients less anxious about communicating with him. His friendliness and openness helps people to understand that interacting with a Deaf person is not so bad! He has become a well-known photographer based on referrals and often new clients find out after the fact that he is Deaf. Or they may know he is Deaf but are primarily interested in his work despite the communication barrier.
Jules Dameron, a Hollywood film maker, often shares that she is a film maker that happens to be Deaf. She doesn’t identify herself as a Deaf film maker and it’s these word choices that allow her to market herself. Jules believes that while Deaf individuals CAN, she is first and foremost a film maker with the ability to make all films. The range of the work – hearing and Deaf films – runs the gamut; her work sells itself. People like her films and then find out that she is Deaf.
All that’s to say, my advice to artists is: allow your work to speak for itself. How you market yourself impacts the decisions that your consumers or audience makes. If you, as an artist, market yourself as first being Deaf because of its uniqueness, you limit yourself to those people who are interested in disability groups, Deaf organizations and the like. Conversely, if you were to market to the general public as an artist first and place the focus on the work rather than Deafness, while still part of the work, it becomes a separate facet of you and not a gimmick to be used in convincing others to appreciate your art.
Tate and Jules are two artists who have seen success because they market the work well, making their art, and creating good work, the focus.
My advice to artists is: allow your work to speak for itself.
Tell me more about music.
My dream, going back to what I shared earlier… I want us to examine Deaf music. I think hearing people enjoy music a lot. I want to give new ways to celebrate music. The idea is that – you [hearing] know music, here is our [Deaf] version. Then, if you know ASL, you can pair the two together. Replace the current hearing take on music and develop a more Deaf centered approach.
I want us to examine Deaf music…I want to give new ways to celebrate music…[and] develop a more deaf centered approach.
Often we associate music with poetry. Poetry is truly its own animal and I feel that while written poetry and song writing have many commonalities – the rhythm, rhyme, endings, etc – they are two separate forms of art. People identify as a “song writer” or as a “poet”. The same is true in ASL with ASL poetry and ASL music. There is not a lot of research, analysis and criteria that states what constitutes successful song writing or poetry. The more we talk about the work, the more alternatives we give to ASL students, the more excitement builds around it. It’s not just music to get excited about, there is more to fly free with and create excitement around.
What do you envision the future of Deaf art to look like?
It’s exciting; I’m really excited. We now have De’VIA – art that focuses on Deaf culture, Deaf themes, the struggles and successes of Deaf individuals and their experiences. It’s now a recognized genre and that’s a big step! Often everything we do gets lumped together as “Deaf Art” but there are so many facets within that larger category. De’VIA has captured its part of Deaf Art well.
Now the film industry has several Deaf film producers, so far I know of three film production companies. It means more opportunity for writers, directors, producers and actors to play around with their ideas and creativity that may not have been as prevalent in the hearing world. These opportunities can lead Deaf artists into the Hollywood film industry.
There are many examples of this – Switched At Birth, for example. The show made history and some of their lead actors are Deaf. It’s a Deaf themed, long standing TV show. Things I never thought I would see, we have now. Progress is being made – Hollywood is becoming more open to and familiar with the Deaf, identifying potential roles for Deaf characters. As a result I think the art community is becoming more defined, more established in developing opportunities. The direction we’re moving in is exciting.
How do you define success?
How do I define success? Setting a goal – however large or small – and meeting that goal. Sometimes that goal is getting up at six in the morning. Doing that in and of itself is a success. Sometimes that goal is to publish a poem and after many submissions, when my work is finally published – that’s a success, even if it’s a small publication. With my performances – success is feeling good after a performance. Sometimes I may feel as though I didn’t do as well. That’s how I measure the success of my performances – if I feel good after, then it is a success. Success comes in different ways – How you measure that success depends on the goals you set. However large or small the goals, I believe in celebrating the little things. For example, completing my website was a success.
Of course with big picture dreams and goals, success is accomplishing what you dream about and set out to do. “I made it! My dreams came true!” Success is when you get what you’ve always wanted. And sometimes there are larger, more recognizable successes but don’t forget that success comes in small sizes, too. We need to appreciate that we succeed a lot, so I don’t feel too bitter about not achieving each dream. Sometimes it’s just making it through the day – YESS!