Posts Tagged 'accessible art'

Why go to art museums if you can’t see the art?

Last Saturday I got all dressed up and went alone with my Seeing Eye dog Whitney to a play. Tuesday the two of us went to the Art Institute of Chicago for a private guided tour. I’ve been invited to sit on a panel about services and programming that museums, theatres and other cultural institutions can provide for guests who are blind or have low vision, and it’s been so long since I’ve attended an art event with special programming that I thought I oughta brush up.

The play I went to at Merle Ruskin Theatre on Saturday featured an audio tour for people with visual impairments an hour before curtain time, and the Art Institute offers guided tours with “TacTiles” meant to help people who can’t see interpret the artwork. Lucas Livingston, the Assistant Director of Senior Programs at the Art Institute, gave me my one-on-one tour Tuesday. He had his work cut out for him.

At best, I’m ambivalent about these special programs. I credit the institutions for trying. I really do. And some special accommodations–like the advance tour before plays at Steppenwolf — have truly enriched my experience.

Harper and me with our Steppenwolf hosts during the on-stage touch tour of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Me, Harper and our gracious Steppenwolf hosts Hilary and Malcolm, on stage during the touch tour for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?Malcolm is holding one of the breakable prop bottles and a bouquet of the plastic snapdragons which figure prominently into the play.

But when it comes to static, visual art, none of the special services I’ve tried have been particularly satisfying or enlightening.

Continue reading ‘Why go to art museums if you can’t see the art?’

Visual art for the visually impaired

I like art openings. Wine and cheese is a favorite combo of mine, and art events make for entertaining eavesdropping.

The "Finster Family Picture" clock, from the collection of Glen C. Davies and Sandra Wolf.

Most of what I know about visual art is thanks to Glen C. Davies and Sandy Wolf, our dear next-door neighbors back when we lived in Urbana. Glen is an artist, muralist, lecturer and curator. He got his early training traveling with the circus, and I spent many sweet summer evenings swaying on their porch swing listening to Glen’s stories of those adventures. Glen’s wife Sandy Wolf has been working diligently as a librarian for the University of Illinois’ renowned Graduate School of Library and Information Science since 1984, and last year she won a Distinguished Service Award for her work there. Both Glen and Sandy are art collectors, and it’s a treat to hear them tell stories of how they find their treasures.

This Friday Glen is giving a presentation at the Chicago Cultural Center about a show he’s put together called Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster. From the Explore Chicago web site:

• Friday, July 23, 5:30 pm:

Gallery Talk with Glen Davies, curator of the exhibition

• Friday, July 23, 6-8 pm:

Opening Reception

I’ve gone to a number of openings where Glen’s own artwork is shown, and after each show Glen singles me out, asks me what I thought, what I heard, my overall impression of the event. He knows I can take in a lot by feeling the vibe in the room, listening to what people say, then using my imagination to come up with my own interpretation. Some other artists beat themselves up adapting visual artwork for the blind, curating special tactile art exhibits, creating 3-D renditions of popular pieces of art. It’s all well-meaning, I know, but the simple truth is that the sense of touch is nothing like the sense of sight. Touch is too particular. Whether it be a sculpture, a quilted wall hanging, or a 3-D rendition, I can only touch one tiny bit of the artwork at a time. I mean, I can spread my hands across a piece of artwork to take it all in at one time, but that’s just not the same as glancing at a piece of art. If I want to really and truly examine the artwork by touch, I have to trace it with a finger. My interpretation is limited to a part of the piece that’s just one fingertip wide.

And don’t get me started about those audio art tours. I like to hear what others are saying while I’m taking in art, and I can’t do that with headphones on. Paying to get into a museum, then walking around listening to a monologue doesn’t make sense to me. I could listen at home, lying comfortably on my couch!

Glen Davies has always understood that I have a unique — and valuable — way of experiencing visual art as is. I go to lectures, I read (or in the case of Glen and Sandy, hear

"Flying Angel" by Howard Finster, from the collection of Glen C. Davies and Sandra Wolf.

firsthand) background stories ahead of time. And like so many others who are blind, I have a good imagination! I also learned a ton about the visual arts by listening to teachers talk to their  drawing students during my stint as a nude model. I have Glen Davies to thank, in part, for my decision to give modeling a try.

When I told him I was considering auditioning for the job, Glen explained how important live models are to art students, then talked at length about a favorite model back when he was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The model was obese, Glen said, which gave students plenty to draw, so many folds and layers. ” Artists like drawing models with some meat on their bones,” he told me. “They’ll love you!”

A backhanded compliment, to be sure, but Glen’s enthusiasm gave me the courage to give modeling a try. Staying still for 50 minutes at a time gave me lots of time to think about my writing, how to reformulate a lead, how to get across a certain idea. I used that quiet time to put together an essay about my modeling experience. Nude Modeling: Goin’ In Blind was published in alternative newspapers all over the country and launched my writing career.

In one of those full circle-type things, my most recent publication achievement also is thanks to Glen Davies. A year or two ago he emailed me the copy he was writing for the book that goes along with the Howard Finster show. He wanted my opinion, my suggestions. The book Stranger in Paradise: The Works of Reverend Howard Finster was published in March. Glen is listed as the author, and Phyllis Kind, Jim Arient, and N. J. Girardot are credited with contributing as well. And if you look closely at the acknowledgments page, you’ll see my name, too — Glen was kind enough to thank me for my teeny tiny part in editing his original copy. Now in addition to being the only blind woman in America to be honored for sports broadcasting, I bet I am the only blind woman in America to be acknowledged in a book about visual art.

If you live anywhere near Chicago, don’t miss Glen’s gallery talk this Friday, July 23 at 5:30 at the Chicago Cultural Center. Look for us there — I’ll be the one with the dog.


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