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.

My tour at the Art Institute began with four busts in the Elizabeth Morse Touch gallery, each made of bronze and marble from different time periods and locations so I could compare medium and style. The touch gallery was created with blind people in mind (each bust is labeled in both large type and Braille) but anyone can go in there and touch them. The Art Institute web site suggests that through touch, visitors can “discern an artwork’s form, scale, temperature, and texture in ways that sight cannot.” Hands might be good at judging temperature and texture, but my experience Tuesday did not convince me that one can discern form and scale any better with the sense of touch than with sight.

From there, Lucas guided Whitney and me over to a gallery to take in Renoir’s Two Sisters, one of five masterpieces represented by a TacTile — two-dimensional tiles (each one about the size of an Ipad) that represent a painting and include a description of the piece in large font print and Braille. It wasn’t until we got to the Medieval to Modern European Art gallery that Lucas remembered, uh-oh, Two Sisters was gone!

I can’t remember if Lucas said Two Sisters was being cleaned or lent to another museum, but after he got over his initial embarassment, we both had to laugh. I didn’t need the painting there anyways. I stood where it used to hang and felt the textured tile while Lucas described Two Sisters from memory.

We had better luck finding the other paintings represented by TacTiles, but the Two Sisters experience left me wondering. What was the point of going to where the painting was? Maybe to hear what people around you are saying about the art? Tuesday was a slow day, though. We were the only ones at each of the paintings I felt my way through.

Lucas told me that with 3D printing more accessible now, the Art Institute might create 3D printed pieces in addition to the TacTiles. They already have 3D replicas of some of the sculpture in the museum, and when we got to a statue of Buddha, Lucas placed a 3D replica in my hand. I asked, “What’s the antenna coming out of the top of his head?” It was a flame. At another Asian exhibit, everything was behind glass. Lucas placed a small bronze container in my hand, I guessed it was a cup, but it was a bell. “One of our interns here made it,” Lucas said, explaining that the intern worked in bronze and had cast a replica of an antique bell that was behind the glass we were standing in front of.

Adapting visual artwork for the blind, curating special tactile art exhibits, creating 3-D renditions of popular pieces of art. Good people have gone to such great lengths to help visually impaired people enjoy the art, that it can leave me feeling guilty when I don’t. For me, the simple truth is that the sense of touch is nothing like the sense of sight. Touch is too particular. Whether it be a bust I can touch, a TacTile, or a 3-D rendition, I can only touch one tiny bit of the artwork at a time. It’s just not the same as when I could glance at a piece of art. My interpretation is limited to a part of the piece that’s just one fingertip wide.

I lost my sight in my 20s, and one thing that helped me adjust was figuring out what I could still enjoy (I can’t ride my bike anymore, but I still ride a tandem; I don’t enjoy movies much now, but I can go to live theatre, where the emphasis is more on dialogue than special effects) and things I shouldn’t bother with (I can’t see art, so I don’t go to art museums). The Art Institute offers audio art guides for free for visitors who are blind or with low vision and their escorts, but the idea of paying to get into a museum so I can walk around listening to a monologue doesn’t make sense to me.

I don’t speak for all blind people–and because I used to be able to see, my experience is probably substantially different than someone who has been without sight their entire lifetime. I can imagine the experience helping someone who has never been able to see conceptualize, and I was happy to learn that another person who is blind will be on the panel tomorrow to give his own opinions and share his own experiences with art. My guide Lucas Livingston is on the panel, too, along with a woman who worked on accessibility for visitors with disabilities at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum and Lincoln Center before moving to Chicago, and the guy who directs Audience Experience at Chicago’s award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre. The panel is sponsored by the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortiumand it happens tomorrow, April 25, 2014 from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. at Access Living, 115 W Chicago Ave in Chicago. The event is free, but you need to register in advance to participate. See (okay, hear) you there!

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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