by Deborah Kent Stein
From the Editor: This article first appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of the Illinois Independent, the newsletter of the National Federation of the Blind of Illinois. Deborah Kent Stein is the editor of Future Reflections, and her name is quite familiar to readers of the Braille Monitor. Her insight and her ability to so movingly convey her life experience make reading what she writes a real joy. Here is what she says:
When I was four years old, my mother set up a child-sized table in the corner of the kitchen. On the table she put some plastic forks and knives, a few aluminum dishes, and a box of Plasticine, a brand of modeling clay commonly sold in toy stores. She explained that while she was cooking dinner I could make believe I was preparing a meal, too.
I was the oldest of three children, with two noisy, rambunctious little brothers. My mother hoped the clay would keep me occupied while she juggled between cooking and caring for the younger children. As far as keeping me busy, the plan exceeded her expectations.
I didn't care about pretending to cook, but I loved playing with clay. I rolled long coils between my hands and twisted them into snakes. I learned to make a ball by rolling the clay between my palms. If I pressed a smaller ball onto a big one, I had the basis for a variety of animals. I could add long ears and a tiny tail to make a rabbit, or I could stick on short ears and a snake of a tail to create a cat.
Plasticine came in sticks, each one a different color. I was totally blind, and at first I didn't care whether I made a green dog or a red banana. My mother used my interest in clay to help me understand the role of color in the world. When I unwrapped a new package of Plasticine, she showed me which stick was blue, which was red, which was green, and which was brown. "Brown is a good color for a dog," she told me. "You can use green and blue and red for birds." Soon I was interrupting her dinner preparations to ask, "What color is a rhinoceros?" and "What color is a sea monster?"
Over the years I acquired more clay, more tools, and more space, with my own table in the basement. I made towns with cardboard houses and clay people. I made clay forests filled with multicolored birds. I made a castle with clay walls, a drawbridge of popsicle sticks, and tall clay watchtowers.
One summer day my family visited the boardwalk at Asbury Park on the New Jersey shore. We kids stuffed ourselves with saltwater taffy, shrieked our way through the funhouse, and visited the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum. My cousin gave me lurid descriptions of the two-headed calf, the tentacle of the giant squid, and the baby with transparent skin, all out of my reach in glass jars.
At last we came upon an object that was out in the open, something I could experience for myself. It was a life-sized, sculpted head. I studied the regular features, the thick, curly hair, and the intricate whorls of the ears. What was this head doing here, among the oddities of nature?
My cousin read the printed caption. "This head was fashioned by a man who was totally blind," it stated. "He made this likeness using only his sense of touch. Believe it or not!"
I wondered how the nameless blind man felt about having his piece on exhibit in the Ripley's Museum. Did people really think a blind artist was as bizarre as a two-headed calf?
On my thirteenth birthday my grandfather gave me six big blocks of clay—not from a toy store, but from a store that sold real art supplies. He explained that this was an oil-based clay that never dried out and could be used over and over again. If I took care of it, he promised, it would last as long as I lived.
A few months later my mother and I visited a local art gallery. Without hesitation, the proprietor allowed me to touch all of the pieces on display. I studied life-sized ceramic heads, bronze nudes, and an assortment of animal figures. I discovered that art was not confined to realistic forms, and I found that artists worked in media as varied as balsa wood, paper-mache, plaster, brass wire, and welded steel.
Inspired by a series of animal sculptures I'd seen at the gallery, I went home to my blocks of birthday clay. Night after night I rushed through my homework, eager to get back to my work in progress. It was the detailed figure of a lion, its head lifted above its outstretched front paws. When it was finished, my mother set it on a shelf in the living room and showed it proudly to any friends who dropped in.
One of the family friends who saw the lion was a professional artist named Don Miller. To my amazement he offered to buy the lion from me for five dollars. A few weeks later he returned with a plaster cast of the original clay figure. It resided on top of the television for the next twenty years.
Don Miller's interest transformed the way my family and I thought about my hobby. No longer did I play with clay. From that time forward, I did sculpture!
At college I majored in English, but for one of my electives I signed up to take a studio sculpture course. I looked forward to exploring fresh possibilities and learning new techniques. When I arrived at the first class, however, the instructor, Mr. D., announced that I would have to drop the course. "Sculpture is very visual," he explained. "You won't be able to participate. It would be a waste of your time and mine for you to enroll in this class."
I was shocked by Mr. D.'s narrow perspective. He utterly dismissed the idea that anyone could create or appreciate sculpture without eyesight. Even when I showed him some of my previous work, he insisted that there was no place for me in his class.
I was so angry that I refused to give up. I was determined to take the class, even if Mr. D. made me hate every moment of it. I went to the head of the art department, who sent me up the ladder to the dean. The dean ruled that I could take Mr. D.'s class, with the condition that I would have an assistant with me at all times—essentially a classroom aide. According to the dean, the assistant would help me find the art supplies in the classroom. In reality, he was there as a buffer between me and Mr. D. The instructor and I barely spoke to each other all semester.
Despite this unpromising arrangement, I learned a great deal in Mr. D.'s class. I experimented with wood carving and made mobiles with dangling wire figures. Most important of all, I gained an invaluable lesson in self-advocacy. I learned not to give up when a person in authority told me no. I discovered that I could fight my way past barriers to education and experience.
My interest in sculpture has never flagged, though I've encountered plenty of believe-it-or-not reactions along the way. I create three-dimensional works with my hands, yet vision-oriented friends and strangers often find it amazing and inexplicable. I strive to be judged not as a blind sculptor, but as a sculptor.
In my study of sculpture I always felt that blindness posed one insurmountable obstacle. My fellow students worked by looking at live human models. The only way I could use a model was through touch, and I couldn't conceive of touching someone's nude body in order to make a clay figure. I worked from imagination or used plastic models that I found in art supply stores. I studied a human skeleton to learn about structure and proportion. Nevertheless, I knew I was missing an aspect of training that is critical to most serious students of art.
In 2011 I enrolled in a sculpture class at the Palette and Chisel, a long-established art school in Chicago. Ralph Cossentino, the instructor, had taught other blind students, and he welcomed me into his class. I began by sculpting the head of Michelangelo, basing my piece on a large plastic model that belonged to the school. From there I moved on to a self-portrait, exploring my own face and using myself as a model. But Ralph was determined that I should have the same opportunities as his sighted students. He asked me if I would like to work with a live model.
I was stunned by the question. On one hand I was thrilled to find an instructor so eager to broaden my learning opportunities. On the other hand, I felt apprehensive and uncertain. Society has strong prohibitions against touching other people. Artists' models are very comfortable with being observed visually, but touch would cross a boundary that, under most circumstances, is strictly forbidden. I worried about how both the model and I would feel, no matter how professionally we treated the situation.
In spite of my reservations, I knew this was a chance that might never come to me again. Ralph talked with the model, a young woman named Jessica. He suggested that I begin by doing a hand study, and Jessica said that would be fine with her. As I worked with the clay, I paused frequently to examine Jessica's outstretched hand. Step by step I worked to replicate the complex mechanics of muscle and bone. Yet a precise reproduction wasn't enough. The idea was to convey some form of emotional expression, the subtle difference between anatomy and art.
I sculpted another hand piece, followed by a foot study. Then I did a sculpture of Jessica's head, complete with her magnificent braid. At last Ralph suggested that I was ready to attempt a full, seated figure. By that time Jessica and I were very comfortable working together, and we both said we were ready to give it a try.
As it turned out, Ralph was more nervous than Jessica and I. He confessed later that he was worried about the administrators of the Palette and Chisel. What would they say when they found out that a student was touching the nude model in one of the sculpture classes? To his relief and mine, the director of the school had no objections. In fact, he commended Ralph for his flexibility and spirit of innovation.
I have now worked with several models, both female and male. Each has been generously receptive to working with me. The models have always approached our work together as experienced professionals, and I owe them my deepest appreciation.
I have met many blind people who are convinced that they do not understand sculpture or raised-line drawings. They are intimidated by the thought of working with clay or other art materials. To my delight, a growing number of people in the National Federation of the Blind are working to break down the notion that art is out of bounds for us as blind people. Some have even suggested that we expand our efforts in the STEM fields to include art. STEM could become STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Few people, blind or sighted, ever become professional artists, but art can enrich life for us all.
When my mother set up that little table in the kitchen, she couldn't have imagined where my love of clay would lead me. And my grandfather was right about that oil-based clay he gave me for my thirteenth birthday. I still have a three-pound package of it, carefully wrapped, and it is as moist and moldable as ever. It looks as though it will last for as long as I live.