Future Reflections         Winter 2010

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Art by Touch

by Ann Cunningham

Abby Cochran creates a picture by adding colorful shapes to the figure of a man on her paper.From the Editor: On the afternoon of Friday, July 3, kids and teens selected from an enticing assortment of hands-on activities. Among them were a pair of workshops on art and representation conducted by sculptor and tactile artist Ann Cunningham.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 3, with the help of an enthusiastic team of volunteers, I conducted art workshops for teens and younger children at the 2009 NFB convention. The team included Debbie Kent Stein, Julie Deden, Michelle Chaconne, Brenda Mosby, and Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway. Our goal was to teach some basic principles that would help a broad age range of blind children better understand how pictures work.

In this workshop we encouraged the participants to make tactile pictures using shapes and figures cut out of sticky-back foam. We used a variety of other craft materials to embellish the pictures that the kids created. Sticky-back foam can be found at craft stores such as Michael's and Hobby Lobby.

The first task was for the participants to sort the foam shapes into piles of circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles. Each pile had shapes of several sizes. We then introduced the "Bathroom Man," a foam cutout of the iconic figure found outside the men's restroom. Each student was asked to identify the picture and the basic shapes that composed it.

Sorting through the piles on their tables, the students found the circle that was the size of the figure's head and the rectangles that corresponded to the torso, arms, and legs. Each participant reconstructed the figure on a new sheet of paper.

At this point the younger children were invited to cut loose with all their creativity and decorate their people in any way they chose. Some children created very fancy figures and others went in entirely new directions, making elaborate worlds such as gerbil habitats.

Using glue and a bit of imagination, Debbie Kent Stein helps Anna Albury of the Bahamas turn colorful geometric shapes into a piece of art.We conducted additional lessons in smaller groups, exploring outline and how it works. For this part of the lesson the children carefully used their canes to follow the side contours of a fellow student. Through that information they discovered the position in which the student was posing - bent at the waist, upright with arms raised, etc. We applied that understanding to recognize a number of poses in which simple figures were standing. (The figures were created with the Thermoform process on plastic sheets.)

In the workshop with the older students, the participants didn't embellish the people they reconstructed using the shapes. Instead, we did some exercises that introduced more advanced principles used in pictures. Through sound and touch we tried to convey the concepts of convergence and diminution of size. The purpose of these exercises was to deepen the students' understanding of perspective in art. It was an ambitious project, and only moderately successful. We divided the participants into small groups, but only one group at a time could do the exercises. Next year I hope to try some different strategies so the down time can be minimized.

After the workshop I asked the volunteers and some of the students for their feedback. "From my perspective, I liked that the children were encouraged to make art that had meaning for them," said volunteer Stephanie Kieszak-Holloway, mother of one of the younger students. "Many people automatically assume that a blind child won't be interested in art, so they often don't get the same opportunities to express their creativity as sighted kids do. I think I've stopped trying to figure out ahead of time what will or will not interest my daughter, Kendra. For example, she's very interested in photography and making videos, and she enjoys painting and drawing with crayons. I personally find this very interesting because she has no light perception."

For me, learning from my students is one of the joys of teaching. The art workshops at convention challenged some of my thinking and gave rise to a host of new ideas. I look forward to teaching and learning even more at convention in 2010.

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