Pleasure fills University of New Orleans alumna Chloé Duplessis’ voice as she talks about her life and work with colloquialisms like “Oh, snap!” or “snickety-snap!” peppering her animated speech. That latter phrase is what Duplessis, a Denver-based artist and consultant, reached for when the city’s elections division asked her to create an “I voted” sticker.
These stickers are the ubiquitous badge of democracy given to voters during election season.
“Keep in mind this is someone who was like student government president in high school,” Duplessis said while laughing about her self-described “nerdy” tendencies. “I had to sit down and compose myself.”
“I was like, ‘Oh, snickety-snap! The election sticker!’”
The design that Duplessis created features Braille, sign language and low vision-friendly colors to accommodate the vision impaired community. It was unveiled in September and is the first-of-its-kind to be distributed to Denver voters, according to city officials.
“As a legally blind artist, I couldn’t be more proud to have been afforded the opportunity to create an accessible, ‘I voted’ sticker for the City of Denver,” Duplessis said. “People navigating disability often feel excluded or even ignored, but it's important to remember that everyone has value and everyone deserves to be seen and heard.”
Duplessis has a genetic condition that affects her central vision. She is slowly losing her sight.
“I can’t see details anymore at this point,” Duplessis said. “(If) I’m sitting in front of a table, I see the table, but if you ask me what book is on top of the table I couldn’t tell you. It’s just a blur.”
Duplessis has refused to be sidelined by her vision loss and travels the country giving lectures on accessibility and hosting art workshops.
“We are all navigating something,” Duplessis said. “Whether it is physical disability, mental challenge, emotional challenge, we have all got something to bear. It’s all about being accessible and inclusive.”
Duplessis used the sticker project as a teaching moment. Many people are not aware that there are varying degrees of blindness, she said.
People with low-vision, like Duplessis, can see certain colors more readily than other colors. Colors such as ivory, gray, or versions of taupe or beige are difficult to detect, Duplessis said.
“If you have low vision, it’s just a blur because the eye can’t pick up on the pigment.”
However, if Duplessis passes something that is a candy apple red color or aqua, her eye is able to pick up that contrast.
“So, when you look at that sticker you will actually see there are colors that are easier for people that are low vision to receive,” she said. “And they (city officials) were blown away. They had no idea.”
Duplessis was commissioned for the project based on her reputation for creating art and immersive experiences that center on accessibility and community.
Duplessis, owner of Duplessis Art Studio, describes her artwork as historical commentary. She uses current events and history, such as the civil rights movement, for inspiration.
“I’m serving as a reflection of the culture. I’m not telling people to believe one thing or the other. I’m just showing what is,” she said. “These things happened and that’s how I weave history throughout all of my pieces. Everything I create has a connection to an article I read or history.”
“Most of my work is digital collaging at this point. I love doing physical collage, but it’s a lot harder because of my vision loss,” said Duplessis.
Duplessis has more than 20 years of experience in intercultural engagement, arts administration and advocacy. She also conducts workshops and gives lectures on art, accessibility and inclusive design.
For years, making art had been a stress-relieving hobby for her, said Duplessis.
“I would do glorified vision boards, I would do collages. I would do an accent wall in my apartment wherever I was living, and just cover it in images and pictures and it just brought me such joy,” she said. “I thought that was just normal until I would visit other people’s houses and their walls were empty!”
She earned a degree in general studies from UNO in 2002 with an emphasis in cultural studies that included courses in anthropology, history, urban studies and international development.
“So basically working with people and engaging with people,” Duplessis said. “It was such a blessing because I use that to this day.”
After graduation, she worked at UNO and Tulane University assisting students with financial aid. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused her to return to her hometown of Shreveport, La.
She ran for a school board seat and lost “miserably,” but was able to reconnect with the city and its residents, Duplessis said. She worked as an executive assistant in the Shreveport mayor’s office for four years.
“My beat was anything having to do with young people and progressive programming. I was over arts and culture,” she said. “Then, I went into business for myself, basically taking what I’d learned.”
Duplessis became a consultant for creatives who lacked the knowledge or willingness to find funds or other resources to further projects or broaden their visibility.
“I knew where the resources were. I knew where the funding was,” said Duplessis. “I knew where the organizations were that said we need something cool and creative and I knew where the artists were.”
In 2019 Duplessis and her husband, whom she met when they were both students at UNO, decided they wanted to explore a different business market. They were preparing to move to Denver with their young daughter when Duplessis learned that she was suffering from Stargardt disease, a rare degenerative vision condition.
“(The doctor) said there’s no cure for it. We know very little about it and eventually, you’re going to lose your sight,” Duplessis said.
Devastated, Duplessis cried for hours.
“I asked God tearfully, how do I show up now? How do I do this? I don’t know how to do this,” Duplessis said.
She recalled her despair in thinking that diagnosis meant giving up her work.
“And that was my first mistake. I thought that … everything that I had worked to create required sight,” Duplessis said. “The reality is, when you’re navigating disability and those things are taken away, you have to show up with all of you. You can’t lean or rest on just one aspect of your personality or your skillset.”
Growing up in a military family that moved frequently, Duplessis had learned long ago the importance of adapting, adjusting and “rolling with it.” She also clung to the “silver lining” her eye doctor had mentioned.
The other form of Stargardt disease causes blindness during adolescence, typically between the age of 12 and 16, Duplessis said.
“All I could think about was all that I had seen as a young woman. The experiences with my family, with church, with volunteering, meeting my husband on UNO’s campus, going to the Cove … traveling abroad, working with all of these people,” Duplessis said. “I could not feel sorry for myself.”
They made the move to Denver right before the coronavirus pandemic.
“I told my mama we’re going and there’s no place we can go that God won’t be. He will send people to support us and to show us love,” Duplessis said. “We’re going to shift how people view disability because we’ve all got something we’re navigating.”
Duplessis recently opened a larger art studio in downtown Denver called the Duplessis Arts and Culture House and continues to marvel over the opportunities and exposure that has come her way.
“I was told to go home and file for disability three years ago. If I had done that, I would still be sitting in my living room (in Shreveport),” Duplessis said. “I knew I wanted more for myself and more for my daughter.”
She urges anyone who wants to reach people with their work to create their own story. That advice is rooted in hurdles Duplessis said she’s had to overcome that stretch back to her childhood as a “brown girl” growing up in the South to adjusting to her recent vision loss.
“I want people to realize that you can shift your story,” Duplessis said. “I think about all of the people that we have been able to meet and impact with our work. So create your own story, create your own version of success.”