Aistė Rye (she/her) is a Lithuanian-American, DeafQueer muralist, visual designer, educator, and owner of Aistė Rye Creative LLC. Rye started her journey at Urban ArtWorks as a community volunteer at a street mural painting day with the Burien community in 2020. She is now proud to be a Teaching Artist at Urban ArtWorks thanks to the skills and experience she gained with the help of our staff and community partners.
A collage of photos of Artist Aistė Rye working on painting street murals with Urban ArtWorks for the City of Burien in 2020.
Artist Aistė Rye standing in front of a mural she designed for the Northwest School for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children.
Your work spans a wide range of creative fields, from graphic design to painting. How do these diverse experiences influence your artistic approach?
My professional backgrounds in journalism, marketing, and graphic design play a significant role in my creative approach. These backgrounds influence my designs for murals and illustrations and the ways I market my business. My graphic design background helps me approach my creative work with an eye for detail and effective visual organization. Viewers of my artwork often say that I paint subjects in an imaginative realistic style with abstract backgrounds. The sharp lines and realistic style is influenced by my graphic design style, which translates well for murals.
My graphic design and journalism skills also translate well for my mural designs as I need to conduct research about a subject matter and then apply color theory, composition techniques like the rules of thirds, and visual hierarchy for storytelling. This approach helps me create work that is representational with symbols and elements that tell a story to create meaning and inspire.
Could you elaborate on how your background as a DeafQueer woman informs your artwork and the messages you seek to convey?
As a DeafQueer woman raised in post-Soviet Lithuania and coming of age in America, I engage with the world from a position that transcends multiple cultural binaries. My artwork is informed by my experiences navigating an able-bodied, xenophobic, and patriarchal society, and seeks to challenge assumptions about culture, gender, feminism, and the Deaf experience.
My identities have shaped who I am and how I see the world. These experiences included many obstacles of overcoming discrimination and misunderstandings because my identities are fluid in between binaries. Because of this, my artwork is often expressed with elements of resistance and liberation to challenge the viewer’s beliefs and uplift voices of people who are often in the margins.
Artist Aistė Rye sitting front of a mural she designed for the Northwest School for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children. The artist is looking at a painted dolphin and laughing.
Can you share a memorable moment or experience as a Teaching Artist or Muralist with Urban ArtWorks that had an impact on you?
My most memorable experience as a Teaching Artist at Urban ArtWorks has been working with the Northwest School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children (NWSDHH) in Shoreline. I had the opportunity to collaborate with the school staff on a unique design using elements of American Sign Language to represent their school. I also got to teach students how to use paint brushes and how to paint during the Community Paint Day. Students were so enthused about painting that they wanted to skip recess altogether that day to paint more! The best part was seeing the enthusiasm of teachers, staff, and students when they made their handprints on the mural to create flower bulbs. It makes me happy to know they will leave a literal mark on their school for many years to come.
Artist Aistė Rye painting alongside children who are students at the Northwest school for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children.
Can you share a memorable moment or experience as a Teaching Artist or Muralist with Urban ArtWorks that changed your perspective on something?
The Northwest School for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children (NWSDHH) project was an incredibly memorable project as a Teaching Artist and Muralist and one that hits close to home. This experience made me realize how important accessibility and advocacy is for everyone and especially young people.
My experience as a Hard-of-Hearing kid was challenging and I often felt lost and misunderstood by the U.S. mainstream school system and some of the closest people in my life. I didn’t have many role models to mirror my experience until I met friends in high school who were also Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing, and eventually in my late 20s, a community in Seattle (Visually Speaking and Capitol Hill ASL Meetup) that introduced me to American Sign Language.
Working with NWSDHH was the first time I felt understood by the teachers, staff, and students in relation to my own identity as a Deaf person. The way the students, teachers, and staff communicated with me, looked me in the eyes, didn’t cover their lips, or didn’t face away from me when speaking, made me feel respected and gave me a sense of belonging, which all made for a fun and supportive teaching experience. I appreciate that students are taught sign language (Signing Exact English Signing or S.E.E.) at NWSDHH in addition to using spoken language. This helps reduce communication barriers for students and empowers them to have multiple modes of communicating with others as they choose. For me, using sign language gives me an extra communication tool should I choose to give my ears a break and turn off my hearing aids.
Because my experience is in an “in-between” place, I don’t always feel like I fit in the Deaf community because I speak and use hearing aids and I sometimes don’t feel supported in the hearing community due to accessibility issues, so it can sometimes be challenging to find places where I feel encouraged and supported to be completely myself. However, there was one moment during the Community Paint Day at NWSDHH that was incredibly moving and validated my Deaf identity. A student asked in sign, “What is your favorite thing to do?” and I said, “I love to paint!” Holding their hand in a fist (to make the sign for A) and moving it up and down their other palm like a paintbrush, they said, “Okay, this is your sign name.” This was a very special moment for me because I have yet to be given a sign name. It takes a lot of time and commitment in the Deaf community to earn a sign name. It’s not something that one is given randomly and is usually only given by another Deaf person. This changed my perspective on the definition of Deaf with a capital D (as in culturally Deaf) and who belongs in this community. I believe all Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing people belong despite our different modes of communication. The Northwest School is one of those places and they give me hope that finding belonging, despite individual differences, is possible.
How has your experience of growing up in Lithuania and coming of age in America shaped your artistic identity and the themes you explore in your work?
My experience of growing up in Lithuania and the US has shaped my artistic identity in big ways.
Being born into a culture that was recently influenced by communism (the Soviet Union/USSR) I was not taught the value of creativity or art as a form of expression. Art was not encouraged as a career path and I was rarely exposed to vibrant and diverse public art outside of the bronze statues of Soviet leaders or Brutalist architecture in my hometown.
During the years that Lithuania was under Soviet Union rule (1940-1991) most graphic designers or artists only had the option to make an income using their skills via government jobs. Under a communist government, designers were limited by the type of design work they were allowed to create. It wasn’t until 1991 that Lithuania and the Baltic States (Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia) became liberated from the USSR through a peaceful region-wide protest and when creatives were able to find new ways of making a living and sharing ideas again. This is why my artwork often includes themes of resistance, solidarity, and freedom.
My experience growing up in America shaped other parts of my life like my immigrant, Queer, and Deaf identities. This resulted in creating artwork that expresses gender, spirituality, and my Deaf experience. In my late 20s, I started making Deaf View/Image Art or De’VIA, which is a type of resistance art that expresses the Deaf experience from a cultural, linguistic, and intersectional point of view. Hands, ears, and eyes take shape in the form of surrealistic symbols and god-like monuments, communicating messages and expressions of Deaf culture in its past, present, and future. Each artwork challenges biases and perceptions of Deaf people while celebrating an expressive language and vibrant culture.
My experiences in different cultures across continents have inspired me to challenge people’s dichotomous thinking, and as a result, my artwork intends to take people on a spiritual journey inward.
What do you hope audiences take away from your paintings and public murals in terms of the messages and emotions you convey through your art?
Public art is a reflection of our inner world, feelings, and experiences. What I hope audiences take away from my artwork and murals is a feeling of liberation, inspiration, and joy. The world is a dark place right now and many people are struggling. As artists we have a lot of power in calling out injustice and inspiring people to action. Through my art, I feel called to inspire and help others see through darkness and inspire people to action. My biggest hope for my recent murals is to honor the diversity of the Deaf community–no matter the mode of communication (ASL, hearing devices, cochlear implants). I also hope to create a sense of solidarity among the entire Deaf community while inviting the hearing community, respectively, to learn and support us along the way. This might be in the form of taking an ASL class, ensuring ASL interpretation is available at events, or attending a local ASL meetup.
A part of the mural artist Aistė Rye designed for the Northwest school for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children. A close up of a painted silhouette of a child with a hearing device in color.
What are some of the challenges and rewards you’ve encountered as a Deaf artist, and how have you navigated them throughout your career?
Some of the challenges I’ve encountered as a Deaf artist are finding my community of people who are also Deaf creatives and business owners. The Deaf community is fairly small but it’s also a prominent one in Seattle. I believe the language barrier of not yet being completely fluent in ASL has been challenging in creating meaningful relationships with other Deaf creatives in my area. However, I am committed to continuing my ASL education in 2024 and am starting to make new connections with artists who are Deaf and who are also learning sign language like me. With more practice, I’m excited to see my language skills progress this year.
Another challenge I’ve encountered in the marketing side of things is seeing unaccessible video content on social media. I really wish content creators would caption their videos. It’s incredibly important, especially for people who are Deaf. The same goes for creating image descriptions in captions for people with low vision. I do my best to implement these accessibility practices to my content and encourage others to do the same so we can all benefit from each other’s work and wisdom.
The rewards I’ve encountered as a Deaf artist is creating my own community and safe space for Deaf artists when I couldn’t quite find one. In November 2022, I curated a group exhibition at Slip Gallery in downtown Seattle. I collaborated with a handful of Deaf artists in Washington State and partnered with other local Deaf organizations and businesses to make this exhibition come to life. I look forward to continuing pop-up events and exhibitions like this one in the near future.
As a teaching artist with Urban ArtWorks, could you share your experiences and insights into the impact of public art on communities and youth?
Public art tells a story about who we are as a community and what we value, and as a result, creates a sense of place and belonging. It preserves and influences a community’s culture and identity. Without public art there’s really no soul in a community. The work we do as Teaching Artists at Urban ArtWorks creates a sense of culture in our city as it continues to develop and grow and be influenced by major corporations. It’s important for young people to develop a voice and this can be done through offering opportunities for self expression where they might otherwise not have at home or school. As young people learn who they are in the world and how they want to contribute their energy, it’s incredibly important to use art as a tool for self-reflection, expression, and growth. Public art tells a story about who we are as a community and what we value, and as a result, creates a sense of place.
What are your artistic and business goals for 2024, and what can we look forward to in terms of your upcoming projects?
My three main artistic and business goals for 2024 are to continue developing my portfolio of murals and teaching facilitation skills with organizations like Urban Artworks, local businesses, and residential clients in the greater Seattle area; take illustration and oil painting classes to grow my creative skill sets; and facilitate therapeutic art workshops for various populations in my community.
As for upcoming projects, I look forward to designing a residential mural for a client in the Montlake neighborhood. I am also excited to start a new body of work on canvas and board that explores my Lithuanian ancestry, paganism, and Lithuanian mythology. It will be different from my typical vibrant artwork and will use techniques inspired by Artist and Teacher Yongqi Tang’s Figure Drawing course at Gage Academy. I was inspired by the Reductive Drawing (or negative drawing) technique they taught, where you use erasure as a medium. You start with a dark background (typically using charcoal) and remove the darkness to create light to define the subject matter. I look forward to applying more of my figure drawing skills to these artworks and to my mural designs.
Artist Aistė Rye sitting in front of the mural she designed for the Northwest School for Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Children. Aistė is sitting in front of an image of flowers that are made with the painted handprints of children who helped her paint the mural.