American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Convention Issue 2015      ANNUAL MEETINGS

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By Touch Alone

by Ann Cunningham

Ann Cunningham works with David Hyde of Wisconsin who is making a tactile drawing in the art room at convention.From the Editor: Tactile artist Ann Cunningham is dedicated to bringing art within reach for blind children and adults. Each year at the NFB convention she hosts the Drop-In Art Room, where anyone can explore artworks by touch and make his/her own creations. At the annual meeting of the NOPBC, Ann spoke about her artistic journey and described some of the new tools that are making graphics more accessible.

My name is Ann Cunningham, and I teach art at the Colorado Center for the Blind. I've been there for about fifteen years. I started out as a stone sculptor, and the stone just felt so good to me! Naturally I thought that I'd love for people to touch it. At some point a question popped into my mind: Could somebody who is blind figure out what these pictures are?

Back in the early nineties I put on an exhibit called By Touch Alone. That's how we juried the show. We invited people from all over the United States to submit artwork, both sighted and blind artists. We put up this show in Boulder, and we had a pretty good turnout. We had sighted and blind patrons, but the general consensus was kind of lukewarm. It really wasn't very encouraging at all. But it was encouraging enough for me, and I stuck with it. I thought, If this doesn't work, maybe something else will. I started to explore.

Ten years later I met Julie Deden, who had become the new director at the Colorado Center for the Blind. I had been awarded a public art commission for the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind, and I felt I really needed to get it right. I wanted to have some people help me assess whether my ideas were working. People at the Colorado Center started to help me. I went back there several times, and people there started to ask me for help on their own projects. After a little while I said, "Why don't I teach?" and I started teaching there.

Over the years we have been exploring and discovering; we never rest on our laurels. Once we learn how to do something, we're on to the next thing, because there's so much to figure out.

I'm going to be working at the STEM program in Baltimore in early August. We're going to figure out how to teach students to draw engineering drawings. We're going to be doing orthoscopic and isometric perspectives. I'm so excited! The attitude and philosophy of the NFB is, "If we don't know how to do it, let's figure it out!" I love it!

You've been hearing from a lot of presenters about different ways of getting tactile images into students' hands. I can't express strongly enough that it's important to start with your children as early as you can. But from what I've seen, even if you start later, it's still a fast learning curve. When I create a book such as Sadie Can Count, it's a children's book, but the pictures in it are beginner's pictures for any age. You can begin learning to interpret a tactile picture at any time in life. I structure these pictures on the same principles that books for babies are structured. Sadie Can Count has "spot pictures." Spot pictures are unambiguous objects on a plain background. It's very clear exactly what you're talking about. From there you can build up to charts, diagrams, maps, and complex pictures. Also the child can begin to express himself or herself through artwork. Information in, information out. You can assess what your child understands about something if you can get her to draw a picture of it.

There are many methods for making raised-line drawings. One of them is the Sensational Blackboard, which my husband and I make and market. You can also make tactile pictures with everyday materials or materials you buy at an arts and crafts store. You can cut and paste. You can use foam. If you get your child used to interpreting pictures, he's going to build a vocabulary of shapes and objects in his mind, just as you build up a vocabulary of words. The sooner you help him do that, the easier it's going to be to talk to your child about concepts. You'll be able to incorporate the images that he has in his mind into your teaching.

I know that a lot of people like to substitute audio-descriptive text for images in textbooks. I have yet to see an audio description that couldn't be enhanced with even a rudimentary sketch. Every time I see someone get her hands on an actual picture, I hear a great "Oh!" of recognition and understanding. There is always more light shed on what you're talking about.

To help people get beyond the glass at museums, I take a photograph of something that's on exhibit. I print it out, and we can at least create an outline image. We can do this with some very large objects, too, such as dinosaurs. Even if you can touch part of a dinosaur skeleton, it's so big that you won't be able to get the whole image.

At convention this year you can see several wonderful examples of new approaches to tactile representation. In the exhibit hall there's a guy from 3DPhotoWorks, and he has one style. He uses 3D printing to make raised photographic images. He has a tactile image of the Mona Lisa on display. One of the exhibitors in our art room this year is a woman who has worked with the Prado Museum in Spain. She brought two tactile images based on paintings, and one of them is an interpretation of the Mona Lisa. And also in the art room is a woman who represents paintings through hand quilting. She's worked out a whole color system, with different fabrics and textures representing particular colors. She has an interpretation of the Mona Lisa, too. So here at convention we have three distinct examples of ways that the Mona Lisa can be represented in tactile form!

This is a very exciting time to think about tactile art. Interact with the people who are here. They are listening. They are looking for feedback about their new technologies. We can have a big say in how these things go if we give them our honest appraisal.

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