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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 25, 2009

Visual language for a visual artist

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — As folksingers croon old mountain ballads and jug bands wrangle stringed gourds into order, Jake Thomas sits to the side of the stage with hands aflutter.

For 17 years, he has made sense of the Old Songs Festival for the deaf.  “I watched families grow up there,” he said of his years at the festival.

About half-a-dozen deaf people usually attend, he said, but the general audience also watches as he interprets.

“I learned sign language from a chance meeting,” he said. 

Living in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, Thomas was working as a visual artist and walked by a couple signing to each other on the street.  He stood transfixed as the pair formed a language with their hands.

“For me, a visual language was a perfect match for a visual artist,” Thomas said.

He befriended that couple on the street, Steve and Terry, who have now been married for 27 years and have four children.  Thomas was the best man at their wedding.

“Deaf culture has its own kind of music,” Thomas said, explaining the challenges of interpreting music for a deaf audience.  It is based on a poetic, rhythmic form, Thomas said, adding that, in churches for the deaf, hymns will begin with a heavy drumbeat that congregants sign with. 

Poetry and storytelling could be considered equivalent to music in the deaf community, Thomas said, explaining an artful form of storytelling that uses hand shapes from A to Z.

As for interpreting music into sign language, Thomas said, “It’s not word for word, it’s meaning to meaning.”  That can be difficult with the type of songs sung at the Old Songs Festival, since many of the stories they tell are not linear, but look back in time and are full of symbolism. 

He gave the example of the national anthem, which reflects on the events of the night before, explaining that that kind of perspective is difficult to translate into sign language.  Also, expressions like, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” can’t be conveyed, Thomas said; instead, he increases the intensity of the rain, showing a heavy downpour with his hands.

“When you’re dealing with lyrics,” he said, “you have to decipher the meaning of what they’re trying to say.”  The biggest challenge Thomas faces at the Old Songs Festival is not knowing what song will come next. 

He was thrilled when a set ended with John Lennon’s “Imagine” because he knew the song — it was the finest interpretation he’s done at the festival, Thomas said.

It works best when he can get in sync with the artists, he said, “because I’m an extension of them.”

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