Good Grief!  Charlie Brown uses sign language 

Originally appeared in Silent News, July 2001.

Visitors to St. Paul will see a variety of characters – including some quite comical ones. No, that isn’t an insult to anyone. The city is literally filled with Snoopys and Charlie Browns.

Charles Schulz, the late creator of the comic strip Peanuts, was originally from St. Paul. The city, proud of its hometown hero, decided to have various statues of Snoopy scattered throughout the city. The Snoopys were a phenomenal success, so the city decided to this again, this time with Charlie Brown, another character in the strip. Artists were invited to submit applications to paint one of 102 statues. Helene Oppenheimer, well-known for her Deaf Art sculptures, decided to try and apply on behalf of her Deaf Art Club, a group of approximately 20 members that meets regularly to work on Deaf Art sculpting and exhibits.

“I sent in my drawing of ‘Charlie Brown Understands American Sign Language’ to the City of St. Paul along with my resume and the application form. They showed it to the Schulz family and to companies interested in buying a Charlie Brown statue,” Oppenheimer said. “My drawing was selected out of 500 by Hamline University.”

With the selection, Helene and the Deaf Art Club congregated at a studio to work on their Charlie Brown sculpture, which stands six feet tall. While at the studio, a chance meeting took place between Stephanie Johnson, Schulz’s granddaughter, and the Deaf Art Club.

“The lady that was in charge of the whole Charlie Brown thing, knows that I know ASL and that I love it. She came up to me, as I was painting my Charlie Brown, and told me that a lady at the other end of the room, was painting a Charlie Brown with all hands on it. She didn’t exactly know what they all were,” Johnson said. “Well, I got really excited, because I absolutely love to meet people and talk about ASL. I introduced myself and told her about how I am working on a career in ASL.” Johnson is studying to become an interpreter in Salt Lake City, Utah.

In fact, there is an interesting connection between the Peanuts creator and the deaf community. “I also thought it was such a strange coincidence that there was a person doing that sort of idea for a Charlie Brown. Also, my grandpa loved that I did ASL. In his Ice Arena, in Santa Rosa, Calif., he had hired a deaf lady in the coffee shop,” Johnson recalled.

“He was so excited to tell me about her, and wanted me to meet her. So, one day, he took me to her, and we had a nice conversation, and he just sat and watched. He thought it was the coolest thing. A few years before, when I was first starting out in sign language, I had taught him the sign for ‘dog’ because he loves his dog. So I remember him doing that sign all the time for me!” Johnson said in an e-mail.

The statue opened to the public along with the other statues on June 8 and is located specifically at Hamline University on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul. The statues will eventually be auctioned off for charity.

With this statue, Oppenheimer said, “We hope that more people will be involved in our DeafArt Club projects, including teaching/creating DeafArt in the schools and with our Deaf seniors.”

Johnson said, “I think [my grandfather] would also love that the Deaf Art Club and Helene did that Charlie Brown, because he so much liked that I use sign language.”

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