Kathleen Herlihy '14
Kathleen Herlihy '14

A picture may be worth 1000 words, but Kathleen Herlihy ’14 is only looking to find a few, albeit in a very literal sense. She is studying the use of sign language in art, a topic which she says has yet to be comprehensively analyzed by any scholarly work. She received an Emerson Foundation Summer Research Grant to pursue an initial scholarly analysis on this subject under the guidance of Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Erich Fox Tree. Her project resulted in the creation of a “manual” to allow future researchers the ability to determine if a certain piece of art contains sign language.

One common misconception about sign language is that all deaf people sign with the same universal language. In fact, sign languages vary to an even greater frequency than spoken languages, with multiple sign languages often existing within the same country. Because of this, Herlihy needed to approach artwork from each culture she studied with a different sign language in mind.


She first surveyed artwork from across the world in order to determine which regions provided the most promising material for research. She decided to analyze works from Asia, Australia, Egypt, India and the Middle East because of their frequent use of hand gestures in comparison to Western art (Indian art, for example, tends to include frequent representations of many-handed Hindu gods). 


Herlihy, an anthropology and English major, began her process by consulting with librarians at Gallaudet University, the nation’s foremost undergraduate university for the deaf. She found books on sign languages from across the world and began to learn the basics of the signing used in the five regions she studied so that she could better identify the use of signing in art.


She went on to reference a number of books on the artwork of the five regions and proceeded to search famous ancient works of art for the use of sign language. Her study of Australian and Middle Easter art produced relatively few examples of sign language use. Aboriginal artwork often focuses on scenes of nature and Islamic doctrine does not allow for visual representations of the prophet, meaning that there are few hands present to sign in the art of these two cultures. She was astounded, however, by the amount of signing she discovered in Indian artwork, with the many handed gods often making complex and sequential signs.


After cataloging all of the signs she found in the various cultures’ artwork, Herlihy proceeded to create a system that future scholars could employ when searching artwork for signs. Her method involves searching artwork for dozens of parameters, including hand position, context and deliberateness of hand placement, in order to determine if a piece of art does in fact contain signs. Interestingly, many of the pieces of art which she believes contain signs date back from before the early 1600s, the historically accepted era of modern sign languages’ emergence.


She believes that this discovery has the potential to completely redefine both the relationship between art and sign language and the history of the development of sign languages. Herlihy hopes to continue her research on sign language and art with a specific focus on India during her senior thesis.


Herlihy is a graduate of Geneseo High School (N.Y.)

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