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[PHOTO/CAPTION: Tina Blatter]

The Feeling of Art

by Molly Miron

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From the Editor: The following article first appeared in the March 5, 1999, edition of the Brookings Register. Tina Blatter is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind of South Dakota. As an artist she is particularly interested in texture, and much of her work is tactile collage. As part of a recent Artist-in-Schools program, she presented evening workshops for parents and members of the community at large, and she also worked with elementary students during the day. Here is the story:

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A blind artist spreads the joy of creativity to local school children with color and texture. Noodles and beans, feathers and crimped paper, yarn and ribbon, but no paint or crayons.

Hillcrest Elementary students learned from Tina Blatter this week how a blind person creates art. And in the process the children explored exciting ideas in pattern, color, and collage. The program was part of the South Dakota Arts Council's Artist-in-Schools, sponsored by the Hillcrest PTA with funds from the state arts council and National Endowment for the Arts.

"It's funner," said second-grader Kacey Harming Thursday afternoon as she chose her materials from boxes of glittering treasure. "And you don't get your hands all messy."

"I'm going to string some stuff and glue it on and put some paper on it, and then I'm going to put on, like, some squares," said Gavin Winters breathlessly, as he arranged his patterns.

"We probably haven't had a project where we had so much freedom to create," said Karen Kinder, elementary art teacher. "It's a lot more choices than normal."

Cassie Hall, another second-grader, agreed. "There are other things to do really great art work besides using crayons or paints or markers," she said.

As for their teacher's not being able to see and needing Braille labels to identify their work, Gavin, also second grade, said he was not sure what to expect.

"Maybe that they're going to mess up. I don't know anybody blind except her," he said of Blatter.

Along with teaching new art techniques, Blatter said she also gave children an understanding about blindness. Only about fifteen percent of blind people live in total darkness. Most see degrees of light, she said.

She demonstrated the perceptions of various blind people by giving children waxed paper or cardboard tubes to peer through. She also showed them Braille books, how she could navigate with a cane, and other devices blind people used.

"You noticed I opened my watch and felt it," she told the children, as she checked the time for class to start. "It's a Braille watch, and guess what happens when you raise your hands?"

The children cheered when they heard that art class with Blatter was a time when they needed to call out their answers, instead of raising hands and waiting for her response. Travis Norgaard, said the words "blind artist" sounded like opposites when they were put together.

Blatter, forty-six, said she had always been interested in art, but when she was in school, teachers did not think it was realistic for a legally blind youngster with less than 10 percent vision to pursue such a career. "I used to do sort of a Monet style with this paper and paint," she said. Since then, Blatter said, researchers have discovered that several of the famous impressionists such as Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and Vincent Van Gogh probably had vision problems.

She earned a degree in special education and a master's degree in rehabilitative counseling, continuing her art on the side. "I've developed a technique of tactile collage," she said. "I tend not to use paint with kids at all. I teach them to use alternate materials."

She said she could see bright colors, but much of the appeal of her art was in touching the surface. When she exhibits her works, Blatter said, she always puts up a sign, "Please touch." That was something she said she always wished to do when she was a child. "Adults are like, `Oh, my gosh, are you really sure,'" she said with a smile. But children have no such inhibitions.

A native of New York state, Blatter worked as an artist in various parts of the country before moving to South Dakota in 1996. She now lives in Sioux Falls.

She said she had some qualms when she applied for the Artists-in-Schools program. "Early on I thought, who would take me seriously? I'm blind, and I don't have an art degree," she said. "But it's worked out." However, after she submitted her portfolio and slides of her works, the only question that came up concerned transportation.

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