Monthly Mentor

Natalie C. Jones (February)
Each month, a different member is the guest writer for the NAEA Monthly Mentor Blog. Natalie C. Jones is an artist, small business owner, and the director of education at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture. She has 10 years of experience working as an art teacher and teaching artist throughout the east coast and the Midwest. Click "GO" to read her full bio.



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July 31, 2020

“Tell the Whole Truth” | Unpacking Art, Race, and Disability with Keaston White

Keaston White
Voice Actor

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Keaston’s story is one of inspiration, determination, and creative joy. Keaston has always loved performing and drawing. As a child, he dreamed of becoming an on-screen actor. In particular, he had a fascination with different voices and speaking styles. Creating different characters and accents to entertain family and friends became one of his favorite pastimes. But one fateful day shattered Keaston’s dream in an instant. On September 11, 2001, what would become one of America’s darkest days, he suffered a spinal cord injury during a high school football practice that left him paralyzed. Despite this challenging setback in his life, Keaston refused to let his circumstances define him. Determined to achieve success, Keaston graduated from high school in the top of his class, earned a psychology degree at a prestigious university, graduated from law school, and passed the bar on his first attempt. These successes gave him the confidence to re-explore his artistic dreams. My interview with Keaston was one of the most poignant and powerful experiences I’ve had along my journey. I hope you’ll be as captivated by what he had to say as I was.

Matt: Hi Keason, thank you so much for making time to talk. I’d love to start out with you as an artist. Could you tell us a little about your unique journey.

Keaston: Outside of being an athlete, I’ve always been artsy - I would look at my sister’s beautiful drawings and wanted to draw like her - I drew so much that my father stopped bringing home paper because I had drawings spilling out of all my drawers. I wanted to draw realistically, I wasn’t into abstracts. After my accident, I didn’t have the type of control to be as precise as I wanted.  

Depending on how strong I’m feeling [on a given day], determines what I can do. There is no steady muscle movement to do the same kind of strokes I used to do. I’ve embraced abstract, I’ve embraced impressionist styles.

Matt: I don’t think people who don’t have experience with disabilities would understand having different strength on different days. Could you unpack that a little bit?

Picture2Keaston White

Keaston: Sure, I am a quadriplegic and considered incomplete because there are some things I can do that a complete quad couldn’t do. I am a c5/c6 - depending on which vertebrae you’re at, it unlocks certain movement - c5/c6 means I have some wrist movement and some upper body strength. I am not able to control my wrist and fingers in the same way that a fully able-bodied person would do. We [all] have specific muscles that allow us to write and move a paintbrush. I don’t have that [dexterity] so I have to rely on my entire arm & a brace to get a certain amount of control. [Still,] it’s very hard to manipulate - it’s frustrating that I can’t manipulate a brush in the same ways that other people would. While I’m glad I have embraced abstract and other styles, I don’t like that I didn’t have the choice to make [that decision] myself.

Picture3A few of Keaston’s recent paintings


Matt: You’re also a voice-over artist - tell us more about that.

Keaston: Acting was always my first love. I’ve always enjoyed doing characters. I never got to explore those things because my dad signed me up for sports but it was something that still ate at me even after my accident. It gives me a chance to get some of these crazy characters out of my head and perform in a way that I couldn’t traditionally on stage.

Matt: You mentioned “getting the crazy characters out of your head.” Is voice acting a release for you?

Keaston: I used to wonder, “Do I just want to be famous?” but I realized that acting is like breathing for me and I am not fulfilled if I don’t do it in my own way. I am thankful that even though my body isn’t what I need it to be [for stage acting], my voice can spread messages and share a different kind of art.

Matt: You mentioned voice, which I think is super important in the art studio. What would you say to an art teacher who wants to help students share their voice?

Keaston: There is so much that can be done - I would encourage teachers to help their students channel whatever energy they are feeling into their artwork. You think about poetry and paintings - all of the legends have been able to say so much that has lasted throughout time. The best thing a teacher can do is get out of the way...and support [students] when they need [support]. Art is not meant to be censored - for the most part, just let students be - educate yourself and take the time to talk about what certain paintings have meant.

Matt: I agree, now is the time for teachers to step back and learn alongside students - we have been ‘the expert’ about art and simultaneously unaware of the needs of marginalized students for too long. I hope this is a year of incredible breakthroughs and growth for our art educator community this year, myself included.

Are there any stories/memories of art/art educators from your childhood that stand out for you?

Keaston: I am the younger sibling, so when I got to school, the art teacher was already in love with my sister’s artwork and I was aware of that. At one [point, I remember] the teacher held up my work and said “this is how it needs to be done” and that was a moment of great pride for me.

When I was in high school I really wanted to paint. After my accident, [the teacher] saw when I couldn’t make strokes that were exact so she introduced me to different types of painting like impressionistic. She taught me that I can show movement, I can create something where you step back and see what it is meant to portray. She taught me that it was ok to draw outside of a certain boundary. It was very cathartic. Now I have tutorials on my YouTube Channel teaching others how I paint and I have realized that art is one of the most creative and positive ways of processing and channeling one’s pain and passion into purpose.

Picture4Check out a tutlorial of Keaston teaching how to paint here:

Matt: That’s great, I’m so glad you had a teacher who was able to see your needs and be responsive. I want to dive a little deeper into disabilities because it is something we don’t often talk about as a society. Even though 20% of Americans live with at least one disability, I have heard this group referred to as “the forgotten minority”. What are important things for teachers to know about working with students that might have physical limitations/disabilities?

Keaston: Make sure everyone feels seen. Educate yourself on the condition of the individual student. Look into information about that particular disability. Brainstorm creative ways to help integrate that student so they not only feel like they are part of the class but have opportunities to excel and find their voice. Even if art is not their passion, once they realize they might be good at it, it can really help them. In a respectful way, it’s good to challenge people with disabilities to come out of their comfort zones because we are often closed up tight emotionally. Be respectful if that’s not what they want to do.

Matt: That is something I never thought about, pushing and challenging students with disabilities to come out of their shell emotionally. Wow, thank you for that insight.  

I want to pivot toward the current social climate - right now, each teacher is doing their own work to understand race, equity, identity, privilege, and social justice. In this blog, we have been discussing what teachers can do to understand their own identity, build emotional health, and facilitate a safe environment for students to learn, heal, reconcile, and grow. As an artist, leader, and man of color, what do you wish more people knew about race and what should art teachers know about exploring race with students in the art studio?

Keaston: I just wish people were willing to tell the whole truth and be honest about it and sit in it. It has to begin there. Get out of your own perspective and put yourself in the shoes of the marginalized. Be honest. Once honesty and compassion is your foundation, everything else that needs to come will flow as it should but you have to start with an open mind. Listen. Read. Have uncomfortable conversations with other white people. Get comfortable being uncomfortable because there is a long history [to unpack]. The hardest thing to change is our education system because there’s been so many [incorrect/incomplete] texts [used in the classroom] that go back so far and so it’s very hard to upend all of the texts but it has to be done. The texts we have don’t tell the whole truth and we need to seek that out.

Matt: So true, and so powerful, we really need to think about the source material we are making available to our students, even in the art room. We need to understand both sides of each issue so we can help our students learn criticality as they form their own opinions.

This has been incredible and I am so thankful for your time. Before we finish, do you have a message for art teachers going into what is possibly the most trying and tumultuous year of their careers? 

Keaston: I just want to say [to teachers] thank you for all that you do, for shaping their minds - but, because you are shaping their minds, it is incumbent [upon you] to make sure you are seeing everyone and providing opportunities to excel. We [as people with disabilities] have something to offer and what’s so great about art teachers is that there is so much more freedom when it comes to art. So take advantage of that and be proud that you are in that space to make an impact on kids’ lives.


My conversation with Keaston made me ask so many new questions:

  • Do I have a solid understanding of the physical and mental limitations/disabilities/needs of my students, especially when we are virtual/home-learning?

  • How can I provide opportunities for disabled students to not only be included, but excel to and find their own voices?

  • What am I doing to understand the history of the marginalized, find inclusive source material/texts, and share the whole truth with my students?

  • How can art help students channel pain and passion into purpose?



Learn more about Keaston on his website and his YouTube Channel

Understand, connect with, support artists with disabilities at Disability Artists International

Check out: Disability Demands Justice - a set of resources curated by the Ford Foundation

*A Message from*

This past Sunday, July 26, marked the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—an act that aimed to improve accessibility and ban discrimination against disabled folks.

Disability Pride Month is coming to a close, and we cannot forget that the Black experience, especially Black joy, must be inclusive of people with disabilities. Black folks with disabilities are experiencing police violence at unprecedented rates. Sandra Bland. Stephon Watts. Ezell Ford. Tanisha Anderson. When we say these names, we cannot erase their disabilities.

The ADA was necessary, but not sufficient. It was a starting point. We must go further. Disability justice is integral to racial justice. Our movements must be inclusive and accessible. Our wins must be for ALL of us.

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The 2020 Black National Convention will strive to uphold the tenets of disability justice and meet the demands of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which creates the conditions for more visibility, considerations, and respect for all people with disabilities. Register for the 2020 Black National Convention at


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