Future Reflections                                                                                               Winter 2001

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Unseen Forces: What Blind People Draw

Professor’s Findings Hint at How Art
Enters the Mind

by Blake Gopnik

Reprinted from The Washington Post, Sunday, April 29, 2001.

Editor’s Note: In 1990 we published an article called, “Pictures and the Blind” (volume 9, number 1). It was a compilation of the presentations given by John M. Kennedy, Paul Gabias, and Morton A. Heller at a June 9, 1989, symposium sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. Dr. Kennedy, as you will see from the article below, is still doing research and promoting his findings about the capacities of the blind to enjoy and create art.

I was, by the way, a participant in that early symposium, and, as a consequence, gained permission for the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children to distribute “Ideas for Art Lesson Plans,” one of the hand-outs prepared by these three researchers for the symposium. The material is still relevant, and still available free of charge. Send your request to:

NOPBC

Ideas for Art Lesson Plans

1800 Johnson Street

Baltimore, Maryland 21230

(410) 659-9314 ext. 360

 BCheadle@nfb.org

I also urge readers to investigate the Art History Through Touch and Sound series developed by Art Education for the Blind (AEB) and available from the American Printing House for the Blind (APH) at:

 American Printing House for the Blind

1839 Frankfort Avenue

P.O. Box 6085

Louisville, Kentucky 40206-0085

(800) 2230-1839; <www.aph.org>

Tell your school that the series is available from APH under the Quota Funds system.

Also, all the Regional Libraries for the Blind and Physically Handicapped have one of the volumes from this series to make available to their patrons. Please check with your regional library and ask about the loan policy. Even if you think your child or student is too young for this material, please take a look at the program. It provides excellent examples of visual materials appropriately adapted to a tactile medium.

These, and other art education programs, may also be available through a museum near you. Over 30 museums around the country collaborate with AEB to accommodate the needs of visually impaired students.

For more information about these and other art opportunities for blind students, contact:

Nina G. Levent,

Art Education for the Blind

160 Mercer Street

New York, NY 10012

(212) 334-8721; fax: (212) 334-8714

<arteducation.org>; <www.arteducation.org>

In one of Kennedy's early studies a woman, blind from birth, drew this picture of a horse.
In one of Kennedy’s early studies a woman, blind from birth, drew this picture of a horse.

Giotto was Italian. So of course was Leonardo da Vinci, Ditto, Titian, and Bernini. Italy seems to breed artistic genius. It must be something in the olive oil.Little Gaia is Italian, too. She’s a 13-year-old from Rome who loves to draw, and her pictures may make her the next big name in changing how you think of art.

After all, Gaia can just about draw a person sitting on a chair. She can draw a crowded dresser, too. Even a sketchy wedding scene isn’t entirely beyond her reach.

All very impressive, even amazing stuff, given that Gaia is pitch blind.

But keep your shock to yourself if you run into her. “Gaia gets annoyed if anybody thinks it’s surprising that blind people can draw,” says John Kennedy, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto and the world’s leading expert on pictures by the sightless. He shares Gaia’s frustration at the blinkers that most sighted people wear. “We’ve always thought of drawings as creatures of vision, locked within vision, for vision,” he says. But he’s on his way to proving pictures are so universal that they can be understood through people’s sense of touch – even by those whose whole world is known through touch and just through touch.

Pictures matter so much to human beings of every stripe and color because they communicate so well, and they communicate so well because they plug into how our minds sort out the world around us. Some of this sorting out, Kennedy believes, works pretty much the same whether you’re getting to know the world through sight or touch, and that’s why the same pictures can speak to both.

Drawing on Psychology

Kennedy’s a sprightly 58-year-old, impressively clearheaded, but also jovial and garrulous in a way that senior scholars rarely are. His special gift for drawing out a yarn has won him teaching prizes and helps spread word of his research – even in science, a drop of showmanship can give a boost to raw discovery.

During a recent lunch, a nearby diner commented on how much fun she’d had eavesdropping on his spiel; immediately, he pulled her right into it, chatting about him, about her, about the blind, about art, about his interviewer and the article that might get written. Twinkling eyes, a trim mustache, a touch of friendly roundness – you might venture “leprechaun-ish” but for fear of riling the Irish-born researcher. How suitable that he should choose a topic as cheerily improbable as pictures for the blind. Why not work on hairbrushes for the bald, or jockstraps for sportswomen, while he’s at it?

If Kennedy’s work may sound wrongheaded, it turns out it’s paying off. He recently got news that, at August’s meeting of the American Psychological Association, he’s to receive the Arnheim Award, presented each year to a scientist who has made major advances in the psychology of art. (Rudolph Arnheim is one of the field’s great pioneers. Now 96 and long retired in Ann Arbor, Michigan, he says he’s still a fan of Kennedy’s “very important” work, which he’s known since they were Harvard colleagues in the early 1970s. Full disclosure: I’m a Kennedite as well, having been invited into a research group of his a few years back as the token art historian.)

Simply showing a drawing to someone without sight, or getting someone to make one, is not such a big deal. Put a sheet of plastic on a yielding surface, then draw on it with a handy ballpoint, and you’ll make a line that any fingertip can feel. (Special kits have been invented that get the sheet and stylus and support just right, but they aren’t strictly necessary.) The surprise isn’t that the blind can feel a line, or draw one, but that they can recognize the things we sighted people use a line to show, and that the sighted also recognize the things drawn by the blind: a legible car, a snowman, a smiling face.

Gaia has been feeling pictures drawn by her mom, and drawing others in return, since about the age of three. Last year, when Kennedy came across this proudly preserved oeuvre, he was impressed with how close it came to something by a sighted child. It shows a typical progression from simple forms to more complex ones, and depicts the kind of things you might expect: Gaia’s home, the objects in it, the people all around her, even the clothes she would like to design for them – though she’s never seen a stitch of clothing in her life, but knows only what it feels like.

Once, Kennedy met up with Gaia in a museum program for the disabled. It wasn’t clear that was the place for her. “Frankly, Gaia could have joined many programs for sighted children. And many sighted children would have looked to Gaia and asked, ‘How do you draw that, Gaia?’ and Gaia would have told them.”

Kennedy has come across such things before. Gaia is no special prodigy. She’s just a precocious example of how much pictures can mean to the blind.

Kennedy tells a favorite story about the time he went to test a blind man who’d never drawn before. They start drawing after dinner, and keep at it for several hours. Come 9 o’clock, Kennedy suggests coming back to finish the next day. “Look, this is really interesting. Could you stay a little longer?” asks the sightless man. Eleven o’clock comes round. Still no stopping him. Finally, around 1 a.m., he agrees to call it quits with pictures.

“When I give them an opportunity to draw, they say, ‘I can’t do this, I’m blind,’” explains Kennedy. “I feel a bit like I’m saying, ‘Take up thy bed, and walk.’ But I’m saying, ‘Take up thy pen and draw.’ And they say, ‘Okay, I’ll try.’ And then they start, and within seconds they say, ‘I didn’t know that I could do this.’”

There’s much more to Kennedy’s research, however, than just its “neato” factor. There must be something big at stake if all of us, sightless and sighted, are so amazed that blind people can draw. We tend to think of pictures as pretty superficial stuff, eye candy that tickles at the surface of our brains. Kennedy is busy showing that images reach much deeper into the human mind.

“It’s not just that he’s making available a new resource to blind people,” says Dominic Lopes, an Oxford-trained scholar who now works on picture theory and aesthetics at the University of British Columbia. “He’s also making available a new way of seeing something that is very familiar to sighted people. We’re awash with pictures in our environment, and this helps us understand them.”

As Kennedy likes to explain it: “Vision is just a hallway in the brain to get you through to other stuff, in some mental room at the end of the corridor. And you can reach it by coming in through another corridor, which is touch…a route for the blind.” Some of our knowledge of the world is in that mental room – knowledge about how objects’ edges work, and of their surfaces, about how things recede from us in space, and how we move among them – and none of that is simply visual. It’s stuff that every human needs to flourish.

Art in a New Perspective

A blind person would be a helpless lump without a sense that there is space out there, that objects sit in it, and that you can chart a path and life among them. If drawings can capture that kind of information and present it to the eyes of the sighted, why not imagine that they can do the same for the fingers of the blind? Drawings, after all, aren’t a whole lot like the real world we see out there around us; they’re a kind of shorthand that captures certain crucial bits of it. Those bits matter to both the blind and the sighted, and so can be understood by touch as well as vision.

This overturns some cherished scientific preconceptions. When Kennedy’s research was just beginning, he had a visit at his Toronto home from James J. Gibson, a hallowed name in the psychology of vision and his mentor at Cornell. Gibson was on record insisting that blind people would never, in principle could never, come to grips with pictures. “Two hours later he left, saying, ‘Of course blind people can understand pictures. It has to be true.’”

There’s another old conceit that Kennedy has helped demolish. Some theorists have claimed that realistic pictures are strictly conventional – that they’re an arbitrary construct of our culture, like how we shape the letters of our alphabet or the rules we use to choose a shirt and tie. It’s a notion that has worthy roots: For years, scholars have tried to level the world’s artistic playing field by insisting that one nation’s art is no better than another’s. Taken to extremes, however, this movement has also tended to pooh-pooh the innovations made in European realism, describing them as random preferences imposed on the less powerful as though they were hard facts. People brought up on Western-style art come to imagine that realistic pictures are especially good at rendering the world, the argument goes, only because we’re trained to read them; we may think that they have universal meaning, but that makes us like those who imagine that a dog is naturally better suited to be patted than to be cooked, and so protest another land’s dog soup. There’s even a long-lived misconception that tribal peoples can’t read a picture when they see one for the first time – a myth that refuses to die, despite masses of evidence disproving it.

“We mustn’t go too far and say that everything in representation is utterly conventional. Because then we’ve missed the gold mine that there are universals in pictures that all cultures do have access to, whether or not people have been trained in them,” Kennedy says. His great contribution is to show that even people who have never come across a picture in their lives – never having had the sight to see one with – can understand what one’s about. For Kennedy, drawings by the blind give evidence for “a universality greater than we ever dared dream.”

British philosopher Robert Hopkins thinks that may be taking things a bit too fast. He’s an admirer of Kennedy’s research, and admits that he, too, might have launched a principled argument against the possibility of pictures by and for the blind if Kennedy hadn’t proven their existence. But he insists that we need to explore just what kind of experience blind people have when they come to feel a drawing, before we decide that it is just like the one that sighted people have. Philosophers like Hopkins struggle with what it means for a flat picture to “look like” a real thing in the world, and about the different ways our minds may process pictures vs. things. If they have to add touch into the equation, that could throw everything off track. “It’s very easy to think that a way of representing the world that we make great use of is also available to the blind,” Hopkins says, “that we see it, and they touch it, but that otherwise they’re much alike. I’m just asking that we think about this more carefully.” Even Hopkins, though, feels that the apparent similarities are striking, and may give theorists of mind like him hard evidence in which to ground their thinking about classic pictures.

After all, when Kennedy asks the blind to draw, they come up with some of the same devices invented by the first human artists painting in their caves, then perfected by the greats of Western realism.

Kennedy has shown how blind people can even use and understand the basic principles of perspective. This is his most important work, according to Hopkins, since it shows blind people clueing in to one of normal drawing’s most peculiar features – the way it can take an object like a cube with sides we see as parallel, and use converging lines to represent them.

One of Kennedy’s blind subjects, for instance, drew a table “from above,” so that only a square top was visible, since the legs were hidden underneath – even though he’d never seen the way a surface blocks our view of what’s below it, but only felt the way it blocked his touch. But when the blind man chose to draw the same table, as he said, “from underneath,” he took care to show the top, now farther away, as a small square, with its four legs angled out from its four corners, as though looming toward us. In sophisticated art-school terms, those legs were drawn converging toward a vanishing point.

This table all alone hardly competes with Leonardo’s “Last Supper.” But it and other pictures like it show an astonishing grasp of the foundations that great artists build on. They hint that the appeal of some of what those artists do – and our willingness to spend ridiculous amounts of time and money just to get the chance to witness their achievements – may be grounded in our brain’s most basic wiring.

What Cannot Be Seen

When the Spanish master Diego Velazquez painted his “Spinners” in the 1650s, it may have been the first time an artist rendered the movement of a turning wheel by leaving out its spokes, relying on a single arcing line to indicate how they whiz by. In the 1970s, a blind woman brand-new to drawing came up with almost the same device when she decided to try her hand at illustrating a fairy tale.

Which brings us to some of Kennedy’s most recent work. Now that he’s shown how universally we humans understand how lines can stand for objects and the space around them, he’s keen to show how well they also capture what cannot be seen.

One part of how art works is clearly metaphorical: We use a certain way of picturing the world to speak about our deeper feelings toward it. You might use jagged lines to communicate about something that’s hard, for instance, and flowing ones to show something that’s soft and yielding – soft in fact, or only soft in how we feel about it. When Kennedy set out to test this very metaphor, he found that all his subjects, blind or sighted, read jagged lines as “hard” and flowing ones as “soft.” Even though, as Kennedy points out, the real forms that our eyes and hands perceive are never that clear-cut: A polished river stone doesn’t have a single jagged edge, for all its hardness, and a soft maple leaf is nothing but zigzags.

Like the rest of us, those born without sight tend to do far more with pictures than just get a real-world shape across. “The blind want to use pictures to do things, like reach out to children; show humor; illustrate fairy stories; understand human relations; understand work; show someone in a picture so that it suggests caring, carrying or being comforted,” Kennedy says. It looks as if pictures can play such complex games regardless of the sense that tunes them in – it seems as though they come ready-made to do so. And once you’ve gone from pictures that give reliable information to pictures that break rules and prod below the surface of how things look or feel, you’re coming close to art.

Amazing as the drawings by the blind may be, it’s not clear that they’ve reached that level yet. But art, of course, takes time, and this is a community that’s only beginning to learn what it can do in pictures.

Kennedy is waiting for the day when Braille newsletters come copiously illustrated, for information’s sake, but also for the sake of art – “using what has been done before, and taking a step beyond it,” as he puts it. “Maybe they’re not just showing Mount Rushmore as it is. Perhaps they’ve added a fifth figure, or put in a joke…Maybe they’ll be adding Pinocchio noses to the politicians.”

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