Braille Monitor                                                 May 2012

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Imagination Unbound

by Ann Cunningham

Hands examine a tactile artwork.From the former Editor: On Sunday morning of last summer’s convention my husband and I wandered past a meeting room in which a handful of people were doing something with art. It was early in the day, and I was just getting a feel for what was happening on this first day of the convention, so we stepped in for a moment and tore ourselves away an hour later. I was not personally tempted by the creative opportunities to make art that were going on in the center of the room. My focus was the tactile artworks on display around the edges. I am always fascinated by what seems to me the disproportion between elements of tactile art as I touch it and what looks right to a person examining the piece visually. Part of the puzzle, I recognize, is the visual conventions that convey depth and perspective. But simply identifying the elements of the composition—falling leaves, a girl on a swing, the moon shining down on the scene—is endlessly interesting to me.

Ann Cunningham and Debbie Stein, who organized this experience, were satisfied with the number of visitors who stepped into the room to make art or learn about it, but I can’t help thinking that lots of people who missed the whole event would have been as happy as I was to experience even a little of this extraordinary opportunity. Therefore I asked Ann and Debbie to write something about this exhibit so that this year’s convention attendees will know about it ahead of time. Here is what Ann Cunningham has to say about the opportunity awaiting Federationists in July:

"But how do you do it?" people sometimes ask me when they learn that I teach art to blind people. Then comes an even bigger question: "What can art mean to people without sight? Art is mostly a visual thing, isn't it?"

"Not necessarily," I explain. "Mostly art is about imagination and the creative process."

In my years teaching art at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), I have met many students who are convinced that they can neither understand nor create art. In nearly every case an hour or two of art class is enough to dispel their doubts. As they experiment with drawing using raised lines, students begin to understand how the three-dimensional world is rendered in two dimensions.

Last summer, with the help of Debbie Kent Stein and one of my students from the CCB, Amelia Dickerson, I set up a drop-in art room at the NFB convention in Orlando. In the art room visitors had the chance to examine art by touch and, if they chose, to create their own drawings or sculptures. Early on the morning of Sunday, July 3, I got to work setting up the room. My lifesaver, Pat Davis of Minnesota, began cooking up the first of many batches of homemade clay. I unpacked the nearly two dozen sculptures that I had sent to Orlando via UPS. We arranged art pieces on tables around the perimeter of the room. Most were bas reliefs I had made in slate or plastic, most of them original pieces and some inspired by paintings at the Colorado Center for the Arts. We also displayed an assortment of books with tactile illustrations that had been 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 for as long as they wished. Volunteers were on hand to show people around and answer questions. Some visitors asked volunteers to explain the art on display, while others preferred to explore on their own.

The art room drew people of all ages and backgrounds. We met 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 and quickly got caught up in the fun.

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, which was quite impressive, considering the number of competing events. We were thrilled that so many people felt comfortable experimenting with their own creative expression. The enthusiastic response to the art room reveals how seldom blind people are allowed to have hands-on experiences with art and shows how much they hunger for such opportunities.

Look for the art room in the agenda for convention 2012. We will be back this summer with works by more artists and with some new ideas to inspire your creative efforts. Please drop in and let your imagination run free!

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