Yale University Next Stop on Photography Alum’s Transformative Journey
“Rebirth” is an unusual way to describe a life-altering injury, but that’s exactly how Robert Andy Coombs (’13, BFA Photography) frames the 2009 trampoline accident that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down during his junior year at Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD).
Rather than let his disability define him, Coombs returned to KCAD in the fall of 2010 inspired to redefine both the “how” and “why” of his artistic practice, which had long focused on issues surrounding LGBTQ identity.
Now, his remarkable journey of personal and creative discovery has led him to the MFA Photography program at Yale University, where he’ll begin classes this fall.
“My ’rebirth’ was a much-needed game changer for my artwork,” Coombs recalls. “I realized that what I was making never stood out, because it was the same old tired imagery of the LGBTQ community. I began to use photography to look critically at the LGBTQ community and how exclusive and inaccessible it is for disabled people.”
Following his return to KCAD, Coombs turned heads in ArtPrize 2012 with “Disabilities and Sexuality,” a powerful series of images combating the dehumanizing stereotype of disabled individuals as asexual. The series was selected by jurors as a top-25 entry in the 2D category and received a Social Action Award from the American Civil Liberties Union.
Image from the “Disabilities and Sexuality” series by Robert Andy Coombs (courtesy of the artist)
In 2013, Coombs’ student work earned him a finalist nomination for Photographer’s Forum Magazine’s Best of College Award. After graduating from KCAD in 2013 as the Photography program’s Excellence Award winner, he continued to push his work out into the world, holding solo exhibitions in Detroit and Grand Rapids and showing at Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts for ArtPrize 2013.
Coombs also began developing a passion for disability advocacy that extended beyond his artwork. In 2013, he penned a series of essays on disability and identity for The Huffington Post and was invited to be part of a panel discussion on disability, sexuality, and artistic practice at Bodies of Work: Festival of Disability Art and Culture in Chicago.
In 2015, he was tapped to help launch the inaugural DisArt Festival in Grand Rapids, which sparked much-needed conversations around disability, creativity, accessibility, and inclusion in the city. Coombs served as the festival’s official photographer and helped organize a runway fashion show featuring clothing designed by and for people with disabilities.
“My disability has opened so many more doors than it has closed,” says Coombs. “It has opened my eyes to a world that is so suppressed in terms of society’s view of the disabled and how the systems that are supposed to help elevate our community only keep us in the shadows.”
Lately, Coombs has been creating a series of self-portraits inspired by the gay Instagram community.
“This work is about having to prove my sexual worth. Sexuality is a huge topic within the gay community, so sexual function is undoubtedly the most frequent topic of my dating life,” he says. “I’m greatly inspired by the ‘insta-gay’ era we live in, beautiful images of beautiful men, and I use that by creating the same look and feel but with the disabled queer community.”
At Yale, Coombs plans to make the most of every opportunity to expand his audience, grow his network, and continue pushing his artwork and advocacy efforts forward, just as he did at KCAD.
“KCAD was such an amazing school; it gave me knowledge, confidence, and a great base for my career. Now, I’m going to use every aspect of Yale to fuel my career further,” he says. “I am inspired by other disabled people who are doing amazing things, and I want to help tell their story and advocate for them.”
Learn more about KCAD’s Photography program.
See more of Robert Andy Coombs’ work at robertandycoombs.com.