Respect Accessibility

How art helps these disabled creators find themselves

“It’s like my coping mechanism. I’ve even noticed when I’m painting, pain doesn’t feel as intense. It’s almost like you can distract your brain.”
VSA 2021 Emerging Young Artist - Second Prize Winner May Ling Kopecky’s work ‘Double Vision’ and ‘Welcome Back.’
VSA 2021 Emerging Young Artist – Second Prize Winner May Ling Kopecky’s work ‘Double Vision’ and ‘Welcome Back.’ Photo by Elman Studio

Story at a glance


  • For 20 years, the Kennedy Center’s VSA Emerging Young Artists Program has recognized and showcased the work of young disabled artists.

  • After a lengthy delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-21 winners are finally being recognized.

  • This year’s theme, titled “Merge,” called on young artists to contemplate the intersections of their creative process and disability identity through their art.

The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., is showing off artwork from some of the most talented artists with disabilities in the U.S. as part of a national competition. 

For more than 20 years, the Kennedy Center’s VSA Emerging Young Artists Program has recognized and showcased the work of young disabled artists each year between the age of 16 and 25. 

Professionals in the field, including curators at national art museums like the National Gallery of Art, review submissions from all across the country and ultimately select 15 who share a total of $60,000 in awards, with a grand prize of $20,000, as well as professional development workshops provided by the Kennedy Center. The group’s artwork is also displayed at the Kennedy Center’s Hall of Nations as well as in a traveling exhibition. 


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After a lengthy delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-2021 winners are finally being recognized. 

This year’s theme, titled “Merge,” called on young artists to contemplate the intersections of their creative process and disability identity through their art. 

“I started having really debilitating pain episodes when I was around 12. So I really dove into art to express the things I didn’t know how to talk about, because no one else my age was going through these things” Moriah Faith, the winner of the $20,000 Grand Prize for her self-portrait “Tough Love,” said in an interview Tuesday. Faith, an expressive figurative painter, suffers from a painful chronic illness. 

“At one point I didn’t really recognize who I saw in the mirror anymore…But then painting really helped me find my way back to myself and really kind of relearn who I am,” she said. 

“It’s like my coping mechanism. I’ve even noticed when I’m painting, pain doesn’t feel as intense. It’s almost like you can distract your brain. And in those hours where you’re in the flow state, a lot of artists relate to the flow state when hours pass and it feels like a few minutes. That really helps with pain management,” she added. 

Faith, 22, received an international award for “representational excellence” for the “Tough Love” self-portrait and currently works out of Boston as a studio assistant to a disabled artist. 

Panteha Abareshi, 22, took home the $10,000 prize for “Methods of Care for the Precarious Body,” an art piece that utilizes analog and digital video and a Kodak carousel to depict their experience with multiple medical illnesses and disabilities, including the genetic blood disorder beta zero thalassemia. 

May Ling Kopecky, 26, won the $6,000 prize for “Welcome Back” and “Double Vision,” which were influenced by her experiences with pediatric-onset Multiple Sclerosis. 

The remaining artists receive a prize of $2,000 and all are provided professional development workshops focused on several topics. 

“The types of topics we cover include your three minute elevator speech when standing in front of your art. We talked about things like self care. We thought that was really important this year because as people with disabilities in a pandemic, issues around self care become really important,” Betty Siegel, director of VSA and accessibility at the Kennedy Center, said. 

“We try to teach the business, like how do you create a professional website that represents your art, how do you address contracts, how do you negotiate with a gallery so your art is valued the way it needs to be valued,” Siegel said. 

The exhibit is open to the public and will be on display through the middle of July before going on tour to several U.S. cities, including Raleigh, N.C., Toledo, Ohio and New York City.