Future Reflections Convention Report 2011
by Ann Cunningham
From the Editor: Ann Cunningham is a sculptor who teaches art at the Colorado Center for the Blind. Her work can be seen at the Denver Art Museum, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, and the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha. On display at the NFB Jernigan Institute are her bas relief portrait of Jacobus tenBroek and a series of bas reliefs depicting Erik Weihenmayer's climb of Mount Everest. Ann has a deep conviction that art can be appreciated through the sense of touch by blind and sighted people alike.
Most sighted people think of art as a purely visual medium. They are bewildered at the suggestion that blind people can appreciate and create artistic works. My years of teaching at the Colorado Center for the Blind have proven to me that touch is a valid and fulfilling way to experience art, and I have had the privilege of teaching many artistically talented blind students.
At the 2010 convention of the NFB of Colorado, my students and I set up a drop-in art room for the conventioneers. Many of our artworks were on display, and we provided clay and other materials so that visitors could make their own creations. The art room was such a popular attraction that I decided to try something similar at national convention. I invited Debbie Kent Stein to get involved, and we spent months exchanging ideas and mapping out logistics.
Early on the morning of Sunday, July 3, I got to work setting up the art room at the convention hotel in Orlando. With the help of a volunteer from Minnesota, Pat Davis, I unpacked the nearly two dozen cartons that I had sent to Orlando via UPS. We arranged art pieces on tables around the perimeter of the room. Most are bas reliefs in slate or plaster, inspired by paintings at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. We also displayed a number of books with tactile illustrations that were donated to us by National Braille Press and Touch Graphics, Inc. On tables in the middle of the room we spread drawing boards for making raised-line pictures, along with clay and sculpting tools.
The room was open all day Sunday and again on Monday afternoon. Visitors were welcome to drop in at any time and stay as long as they wished.
People began to arrive as soon as the doors officially opened. The art room had been listed in the agenda, but at first traffic was relatively light. As Sunday went on, however, more and more people heard about the art room by word of mouth, and the flow of visitors increased. Volunteers were on hand to show people around and answer questions. Among them was Amelia Dickerson, one of my art students from Colorado. Some visitors asked volunteers to explain the artwork, while others preferred to explore on their own.
The art room drew people of all ages and backgrounds. We saw parents with blind children and teens, adults who had been blind all their lives, and seniors who were losing their vision. Teachers and other professionals came by to observe. Three newly-blinded artists stopped in to learn what we were doing; they were new to the Federation and new to one another.
Most people made a thorough investigation of the artwork arranged around the room. They took their time to examine each piece, not wanting to miss any detail. After they studied the sculptures and books on display, many of the visitors sat down to draw or work with clay. On average, visitors stayed for about two hours. The atmosphere was relaxed and welcoming, and we were delighted that so many people felt comfortable to experiment with their own creative expression.
The enthusiastic response of our visitors reveals how seldom blind people are allowed to have hands-on experiences with art, and it shows how much they hunger for such opportunities. One fifteen-year-old girl exclaimed, "I never imagined something like this could really happen! I never thought there could be a whole room full of art for me to touch!"
We hope to be back at Convention 2012 with works by many more artists and with some new ideas to inspire visitors' creative efforts. When you come to the NFB convention in Dallas, please drop in!