American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Winter 2021     MUSIC AND ART

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Building Community Through Tactile Art

by Rishika Kartik

Rishika KartikFrom the Editor: Rishika Kartik leads art activities as a volunteer at the Colorado Center for the Blind. She also conducts art workshops with blind and low-vision students from the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind (CSDB) and in school districts across the state. In 2019 she received a two-year grant to expand her work from Arts in Society, a Colorado foundation that supports arts programs in underserved communities. Rishika has the distinction of being the youngest person ever to receive an Arts in Society grant. At the time her grant was awarded she was fourteen years old! In this article Rishika describes her work and the ways it enriches her life.

On a cool autumn night in 2008, the specks of color on my canvas ignited sparks of passion within me. Painting a self-portrait in my home, I was enthralled by the sleek lines on my canvas, the subtle fusing of hues, and the carefree whimsy of the brush in my hand. Blank pages became a sea of possibility, and with every stroke I became liberated to create a world of my own. Ever since then art has become the way I connect with others, express myself, and make sense of the world.

I started volunteering with the blind and low-vision community in 2018. I was searching for a way to broaden my perspective and interact with diverse individuals. Immediately, I fell in love with the sense of community at Anchor Center for the Blind, the Colorado Center for the Blind, and the Colorado Center for the Deaf and the Blind. I will proudly say that each blind individual I've been fortunate to meet over the past two years has given me my vision and illuminated insights I never would have considered. One of the most notable insights I have gained is the importance of tactile art and accessible creative outlets. Art is such an essential part of my life, yet I saw so many individuals being deprived of it consistently.

As a sighted artist, I realized that public perception of art is unfortunately unidimensional. It became evident to me that tactile art is just as important as visual self-expression. Visual art is ingrained within every aspect of modern culture, from coloring books in early childhood education and murals on street corners to museum visits and household paintings. Therefore, making art more accessible and inclusive involves fostering community, developing therapeutic approaches, sparking creativity, and encouraging holistic wellbeing.

When I started to incorporate tactile art into my volunteer work, the impact was ubiquitous across cultures, age groups, and backgrounds. This revelation has changed my life. It has empowered every aspect of my allyship.

Two hands sculpt a face with clay.I am profoundly grateful to the Colorado Center for the Blind and my inspiring mentor, Ann Cunningham, for giving me the opportunity to become the president of the Tactile Art Club in January 2020. Coordinating the Tactile Art Club completely revolutionized the way I perceive art and allowed me to look at creativity in a multisensory, nuanced way. What started as a small group of about five enthusiastic artists soon grew exponentially in participation, with teachers of blind students, blind children and teens, and allies of all ages coming together to explore new artistic possibilities. At the end of February club meetings averaged around fifteen dynamic participants. We focused on providing enriching creative experiences with ceramics, using tools to create a variety of forms and textures.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic the entire structure of the club changed in March. Continuing to explore tactile art remotely proved to be a previously unaddressed challenge. However, that certainly did not stop the club from flourishing! The online format eventually broadened participation from the local Colorado group to all parts of the country and the world. We were thrilled to have twenty-eight participants join our December Tactile Art Club meeting. The international community soon became vital to the experience, as club members learned as much from the diverse participants as they did from the media they used. While we were physically distanced, we became more socially connected than ever.

As I witnessed an international community develop, I realized that art not only has aesthetic and practical functions, but it brings socioemotional and cognitive benefits as well. Having the opportunity to teach online also changed my concept of "works of art." In order to address learning inequities and to ensure an affordable, equitable, and convenient experience for everyone, we shifted from using traditional media to creating with household objects. This development allowed us to experiment with a variety of intriguing materials—paper, tinfoil, pipe cleaners, and more. It made me appreciate the beauty of "ordinary" items in a new way.

I am so appreciative of the dedicated members of this club who have had a deep impact upon my view of accessibility, creativity, and, broadly speaking, the way I interact with my world. Meeting inspiring individuals through Tactile Art Club reinforced the importance of this cause, impacting the virtual execution of my project, Vision of the Artist's Soul. I am so thankful to Arts in Society for giving me a generous grant to create a comprehensive Tactile Arts education program for blind and visually impaired youth. Tactile Art Club has given me the confidence and experience to create holistic education and artistic outlets virtually. It has also inspired me to apply for further grants to reach more people and create new possibilities in this field.

A photo grouping: top left, hands create a bowl from clay; top right, a small tray in the shape of a leaf; bottom right, a tall vessel with two handles; bottom left, a collage of the other three photos

These experiences also have motivated me to expand my work to other facets of accessibility. The National Federation of the Blind has graciously allowed me to start a Museum Accessibility Committee with blind and sighted industry leaders. During our meetings we have discussed best practices for accessible museums and inclusive public spaces. I began reaching out to local museums such as the Denver Art Museum, Museo de las Américas, and the Museum of Contemporary Arts, Denver, to partner with them and implement the insights I gained from the NFB committee. Subsequently, I founded Touch and Create Studios, a program that works one-on-one with museums to improve inclusivity and conducts workshops for students of diverse ability levels. The Museum of Contemporary Arts generously gave me the chance to conduct my first workshop for blind and low-vision youth, featuring the practice of phenomenal blind artists such as Marguerite Woods and Emilie Gossiaux. The workshops were an uplifting success, and I look forward to implementing similarly inclusive programs with other museums and organizations.

Finally, I am thankful to have learned more about how best to be an ally to this community and challenge my notions as a sighted person. I am so lucky to gain more knowledge and grow with every experience. I attended the 2020 National Federation of the Blind National Convention virtually and met a diverse group of people with such solidarity, independence, and optimism. At the state convention of the NFB of Colorado I was fortunate to conduct a pumpkin carving art studio with Ann Cunningham. My time at both the national convention and the state convention made me so grateful to be part of this community! I cannot thank the NFB of Colorado and the Colorado Center for the Blind enough for welcoming me with open arms and making me feel like a part of the Federation family.

I also got the opportunity to attend the 2020 Washington Seminar with the Federation to advocate for legislative initiatives. That experience inspired me to pursue advocacy by creating the design for the 2020 White Cane Day celebration and starting the social media campaign, #MyCaneMyIndependence. The mission of #MyCaneMyIndependence is to raise awareness for White Cane Day and to advocate for the right of individuals who are blind and visually impaired to travel independently. It also aims to celebrate the achievements of blind individuals and advocate for policies and infrastructure to build a more accessible and inclusive society.

Ultimately, this year has taught me to approach my interactions through an abundance mindset that aims to enrich the preexisting assets of a community instead of acting as a "savior." I now know that solutions must be human-centric and must work directly with the population that they are trying to benefit. I truly believe the blind and visually impaired community has given me so much more than I could ever give them, and I am thankful for the ability to see service and advocacy in a new way.

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