Future Reflections Fall 1991

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by Kristy Bird.

There are many reasons to teach children art. In elementary schools, for instance, studio art allows children to free their imagination. Sometimes it gives an alternative to academic achievement. Furthermore, art appreciation reinforces other subjects such as history and the study of other cultures. These reasons for teaching art to sighted children are viable reasons for blind children as well.

Art Education for the Blind, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Whitney Museum of American Art, is dedicated to making art accessible to people of all ages. Directed by its founder, Elisabeth Salzhauer Axel, the AEB staff works extensively with psychologists, artists, and educators to meet this challenge. AEB combines their research on the possibilities of sound and touch with modern technology to produce a variety of audible and tactile teaching materials.

AEB bases its tactile models on the research of several perceptual psychologists. John Kennedy of the University of Ontario studies the best means of communicating pictures to the blind. In his words, "blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education". Since art is the articulation of the shapes and spaces of the world around us and the expression of our inner thoughts and emotions, we can all understand art, given the proper tools.

Kennedy proved that congenitally blind people understand complex visual concepts. His students use a writing kit with a malleable rubber sleeve to touch drawings and to draw their own. Not only were his students able to identify basic shapes, they understood composite scenes such as landscapes or room interiors. They also identified metaphors, such as changing the shape of a car's wheel to suggest motion, and stick figures which express different emotions, events, or character (as curved spine suggests old age). Using a sharp object to raise lines on the rubber sleeve, Kennedy's students were able to draw outlines of basic shapes, detailed figures, and even converging lines to show depth.

AEB's first projects were the creation of three-dimensional models of famous works of art. Claude Monet's "Rouen Cathedral" for example, can be explained using two different approaches. One approach defines the shape of the Cathedral, which is the embodiment of Gothic architecture. With raised line drawings or three-dimensional textured models, students begin to understand the outline of the painting's main shapes and how the Cathedral relates to history and culture.

The second approach explains the artist's style of painting. Monet was an impressionist interested in light and color effects. By placing different colored dots of paint next to each other instead of blending the colors, Impressionists created a whole new art style. For instance, blue and yellow dots look green when placed close together. Since color and light are purely visual concepts, AEB uses raised dots of different textures which, when combined, feel like a whole new texture.

Surprisingly, an approach with sound uses a similar method of separate and combined tones. Louis Giansante, an award-winning sound artist, recreates the space, shapes, style, and emotional content of paintings and architecture. Giansante relates impressionism to a musical chord. Chords sound like one complete tone when all their notes are played simultaneously. When the notes are played separately, on the other hand, each tone sounds individually. Thus, the visual effects of "Rouen Cathedral" can also be communicated by sound. Giansante can also demonstrate the soaring height of the Cathedral by recording the echoes of its interior.

Although three-dimensional tactile models (such as the "Rouen Cathedral" example above) are successful, they are usually too large, fragile, and expensive for wide distribution. With the help of new technology, AEB will be able to reach a larger audience at lower costs. Computers are now being used to create raised lines and a variety of textures. Some programs and printers use a relief process similar to embossing while others use a plastic ink. Originally used for Braille texts, the programs were expanded to produce texture maps. AEB then took the programs into an entirely new frontier, art.

Such technology enables AEB to develop its latest projects, an architectural book for children and a supplement for art history/appreciation books. The book for children contains raised-line drawings of seven famous monuments, including the Empire State Building and the Parthenon. The monuments relate to their historical time periods and the culture that influenced them. While the language of this project is geared toward children, it can be enjoyed by interested adults as well.

The art appreciation supplement, authored by Dr. Paula Gerson, is an in-depth discussion of the major movements in the history of art. The supplement does not simply translate every renowned work of art, rather it aims at elucidating the major stylistic differences. The supplement also includes innovative sound compositions, a teacher's manual, and exam material for credit.

In the four years since its inception in 1987, AEB has been busy creating and testing the many possibilities of art education with sound and touch. Although Art Education for the Blind is far from being in the mainstream, it has already begun to work closely with the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Ringling Museum. The art history text book supplement and the architectural book will soon be available for individual use. Please note that AEB's tools are also enjoyed by sighted people who want to explore art in a new, exciting way. To reach AEB, please write or call: Art Education for the Blind, 935 Madison Avenue, New York, New York 10021; (212) 879-5100.

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