Below are images of hand built ceramics from our Touch Art workshops this past fall at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. All artwork was created by individuals who are either totally blind or legally blind.
Ann Lapidus participated in almost all of the touch art workshop series and sat down with me to talk about her experience in the classes and where she’d like to see the project go from here. Ann was born sighted and lost her sight as a young adult, she has been blind for the past 6 years. Now she is very independently navigating the world and developing an arts practice of her own. Ann has taken ceramics classes in the past and has been refining her skills at the pottery wheel for the past few years. In the precious metal clay class and the ceramics class she worked on developing some new skills of texture detail and hand-building in clay.
What were some of the things you enjoyed in your Touch Art Classes?
The teachers really got that there was nothing about the material that required vision. It didn’t feel like a big inconvenience for them to make modifications for the blind community
In your opinion, what is the ideal outcome of the Touch Art Project?
I’d like to see artists in the area be more aware that this is happening. Ideally this would happen again and include more artist/volunteers. With a larger group of supporters, more people could learn about accommodations in a low-pressure environment. Volunteer assistants can feel comfortable asking questions and learning in a hands-on way without the pressures of being ‘in-charge’. Being in a hands-on learning environment is so helpful!
Overall, I see the Touch Art project as a step towards a bigger shift towards inclusion in the arts. There will be lots of tiny steps to bring Pittsburgh to true inclusion and Touch Art is a great starting place!
What are your recommendations for next steps?
When you have your arts-educators seminar in January, I’d like to see demos of the process and blind folks talking about their experience.
This workshop series was focused on providing an art making space for the blind community in a separate space. True inclusion wouldn’t need this separation but it is a starting place – people need direction to learn how to accommodate before they can have full inclusion
In the next phase of the project it would be great to have blind folks as teachers, maybe partnered with a sighted person to teach classes focused on fine craftsmanship. Students could be put under blindfold and blind instructors could show students their capabilities first hand.
If the Touch Art Project can start to convince people to be more inclusive and prove that it’s not such a scary process, I would consider the project to be a big success! We just have to show people how it’s done and we can move forward towards true inclusion.
Interview with Kirsten Ervin
Stephanie Van works as a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist with the Bureau of Blindness and Visual Services, Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. She is also the author of “Craft Adaptations for Vision Impaired Adults of All Ages”, soon to be re-published. It draws from her experience of teaching crafts to visually impaired adults for 16 years. Much of Stephanie’s knowledge is first hand, as she is both an avid crafter and a person with a visual impairment.
What is a Vision Rehabilitation Therapist?
VRTs instruct people with vision loss techniques and compensatory skills for maintaining the highest level of independent living possible. We do this for people of all ages, typically in a community setting, either home or work, and sometimes in groups.
When did you start making things?
As far back as I can remember, I loved art class in school. In particular, I like simplistic art, with bold colors, not too much detail, abstract rather than realistic. I grew in learning what I had to adapt for myself in art. In graduate school, I studied techniques that could apply to doing anything and everything in daily living, including arts and crafts.
Describe your visual impairment:
I have Retinopathy of Prematurity. I was born three months early. I had too much oxygen in the incubator and it did some retinal damage. My vision has also changed over the years, I’ve lost some more of my visual field and had cataracts.
When did you start teaching crafts?
My first job out of graduate school was on the Eastern side of the state, at a local nonprofit [serving people with visual impairments]. I was often asked by potential customers and families, “Is there anything I can do to fill time, to make myself feel better, to create again?”
At the same time, I was finding myself having to “sell” rehab teaching to new referrals. People don’t know what they don’t know, and sometimes what they need. I started a craft class for between 6 and 22 people. I began to seek craft projects anywhere and everywhere, at art fairs, in shops, to see what people like. I asked myself, “How can this [craft] be adapted so that it is viable, cost effective, not too complicated, and how can it also provide a sense of self-worth, accomplishment and confidence? How can people ‘do it myself’ with vision adaptations and adhering to vision rehab techniques? “
The class also incorporated five volunteers, and they were instructed to serve as the students’ eyes only, not to do the task for them – I was very strict about this, I insisted. If the volunteers forgot, I reminded them. Let them do it for themselves.
It’s often harder to teach volunteers than the people in the class, because they often don’t have the patience or think they’re being helpful [by being too involved], but it’s really counter-productive to the goal of the project. People who are blind or visually impaired do take longer to complete tasks, yet they can be completed. I chose projects with immediate results and feedback. I didn’t want people to lose interest. The class was only an hour and a half. I taught the class for 16 years.
Tell me about your book.
I also sought funding to write my book about how to set up a craft class for someone with vision loss: “Craft Adaptations for Vision Impaired Adults of All Ages”. The book took what I had learned from my experience, comments from the class, skills I had developed. I provided task analysis of each craft with contraindications for people with additional disabilities.
My audience for the book was individuals with vision loss, senior centers, activities groups, day programs. It’s not really about the specific craft projects, but about the underlining principles, and techniques, using less detail, more tactile elements, using templates. The projects are set up so that each participant made something that was different and creative. The projects are all designed to get people started thinking and to expand on the principles.
The class was also a way to get people to participate in rehabilitation, starting with crafts and then transferring to home skills. They were often reluctant and resistant to rehab, but when these same techniques were introduced in a fun and non-threatening way, they met people, grew in confidence, and then were able to transfer those skills to other areas of their life.
What do you like to make?
I don’t stick to anyone thing for very long. I like to do water color, make strange accessories, using heavy watercolor paper and templates to make flowers, and other shapes as gifts. I also like crocheting and making jewelry from sculpey. I’m also interested in wire jewelry.
What has been your experience in taking art classes?
I’ve not done as many art classes for two reasons: availability and accessibility.I’ve never gone to Pittsburgh Center for the Arts because it would take me 2 hours to get there one way on the bus and then, only at certain times of the day. I’m also hesitant because of generally how people react to blind or visually impaired people – either with pity or awe. Neither of those attitudes work when you want to be a student. Or it’s an attitude of “I don’t know what to do for you”, and because you as the student are new to the medium, you don’t know either, making it hard to advocate for yourself.
I have no issues going places by myself, but from years of experience it’s hard to navigate and orient myself in a large art studio, where things are a very neutral color and there isn’t a lot of contrast.
What would you need to have art classes be accessible?
Contrast, the availability of a task light, orientation to the room, a guided tour of the room, an ability to control my own work area, not in a selfish way, but so that I know where things are and they don’t get moved. Using a cafeteria tray or desk organizer really helps. So does fixing small objects to the table with a duct tape loop.
Why should blind people make art?
It might seem like an odd question to a normal person, but there is the possibility of making art tactually and appreciating the end result. The art process does a lot for your mind, it’s calming, a stress reliever, and it attacks the common co-disability of depression that a lot of people with vision loss experience. Not everyone is creative or artistic, but it gives an awareness of abilities rather than disabilities, that you are on an equal level with sighted peers. I also don’t know anyone who doesn’t appreciate a gift. I always told my class, the finished product should be quality enough that you could either sell it or give it as a gift.
What are your recommendations to art organizations to increase accessibility to folks who are blind or visually impaired?
Welcome the person at the door first, in a person-to-person voice. Ask, “What can I do to help you?” Create a clear pathway to the studio, have maximum contrast in the space, define each person’s workspace, with limited distractions, so that people can exercise both independence and control. And I mean control in terms of choices and independence, controlling your little corner of the world.
Karen is a retired Senior Data Analyst. She also draws and paints with watercolor. Both she and her twin sister Celeste were born with retinopathy of prematurity. Karen sat down with Kirsten Ervin to share her love of art, and how her visual impairment has affected her artwork. She is enrolled in a number of Touch Art workshops. Below is one of her pencil drawings.
When did you start making things?
I started drawing and painting when I was about 5 years old. I loved to draw by myself, but both of my parents helped me learn to draw. My Dad taught me about colors and perspective when I was fairly young. My Mom bought my sister and I John Nagy drawing sets and drew along with us.
Describe your visual impairment
I’m blind in one eye, due to retinopathy of prematurity.
Karen explains that she and her sister have been reading “Fixing My Gaze”, a first person account by neuroscientist Susan Barry, who lacked stereoscopic vision for most of her life, then gained the ability to see in three dimensions in her 50s. Like Barry, Karen and her sister lack stereoscopic vision.
I thought I knew what I was missing by not having two eyes, I thought I could see in three dimensions, but I don’t. I thought I could see they way you see. But I realized our sight is very much different than your sight. That’s why I can only draw from pictures, not from life. For example you appear flat to me, you don’t occupy volume or space, but look more like a piece of paper that could bend.
What do you need for an art class to be more accessible?
Karen explains that she took a watercolor class as an adult at the Carnegie Museum of Art, but near the end, she left the class because she felt rushed and frustrated.
I needed to look a lot closer than other people in the class. I could not go as fast as the others in the class, partly because of my inexperience and partly because of my problematic eyesight. It probably would have helped if I had alerted the art instructor to the problems with my eyes and the extra help I might need.
The Touch Art teacher (Katy DeMent) was so natural, I thought she had been teaching blind people her whole life. She didn’t treat anyone like they were dumb. That’s one thing that really gets my whiskers up. I’m really sensitive to being treated as if I’m dumb just because I have problems with my eyesight and my need to go slower. If I need to go slower, don’t make a big deal about it.
Maybe that’s why I’m self-taught. In my 20s, I might not have trusted that a teacher could work with me, without making me feel different or dumb. I had bad experiences in high school, so I thought I’d have them everywhere.
What did you think of the first Touch Art class, Paper Making with Katy DeMent?
I loved the class. I loved the paper things I made. I didn’t feel like I was rushed. No one said I couldn’t use my creativity or take the time to do what I wanted to do. Nobody said you can’t do it. I stuck my leaves inside my crochet doily and it looked very Victorian. I loved the fact that I could take the materials I was given and make them my own.
I also liked being around other blind people. They’re like me. It felt good.
Ceinwen King-Smith is simply an awe-inspiring woman, maker, singer, world traveler, language expert and so much more! Ceinwen may have been born blind, but she’s never let that stop her from exploring the world and learning as much as possible.
As a young girl growing up in Chicago, she told me about how her parents didn’t want her to work so hard and tried to calm her thirst for knowledge. Worried about her sleep schedule and social life, they agreed on a house rule of all homework finished before midnight. Little did they know she was sneaking around in the late night hours reading Braille in the dark while being tucked into bed! She is unstoppable when she decides there is something she wants to learn and do.
She became interested in China as a young girl through stories of digging holes to the other side of the world and imagining the starving kids in China that wanted her leftovers from dinner. When she discovered that the language was tonal in nature, she knew she had to start learning more about the sounds that build this far away place. She studied Russian Literature at Stanford and then received her Masters of Arts in Teaching at Harvard, all while learning to speak Chinese on the side. She is now fluent in both Chinese and Russian and teaches these languages locally at the Pittsburgh Gifted Center.
When I walked into Ceinwen’s home, I was greeted by a symphony of wind chimes. In every shape and sound the entire perimeter of her porch was singing with the wind. As I walk inside, I start to realize this is no average home. Every wall and shelf is actually an international, handmade, touchable art museum! Every wall is covered with art she has collected from around the world. As she starts to give me the tour of her wall of masks, the series of elephants, and her beaded jewelry, I slowly start to realize every single piece in her collection has a story she’s ready to tell.
Ceinwen has been to China 22 times, along with other international locations including most recently a trip to Honduras to volunteer last summer. When she touches a piece of art that needs to come home with her, she knows it almost immediately. With a collection of mostly wood and stone sculptures, there have certainly been some heavy backpacks and weighty return trips to make this collection complete.
Outside of enjoying the textures and shapes of her art collection, Ceinwen also likes to stay busy with her hands. As a young girl, she liked to make things out of modeling clay and sell them for $0.25 or $0.50 at church events. When she sold enough to earn $50 for her church fundraiser, she knew she had a unique ability to craft things with her hands. She started knitting in college and has knitted sweaters, mittens slippers and some impressive relief blankets for friends and family members. The Noah’s Arch blanket she made for her father has beautiful pairs of animals knitted and stuffed slightly to bulge up on the surface of the knitted quilt. Most recently her knitting skills were applied to the Knit the Bridge project where she completed a panel and many railings to cover our beautiful Warhol Bridge.
She also enjoys beading necklaces and likes to do this while listening to books. Sometimes she sells these pieces but most of the time she gives them to friends and says, “I’m delighted if someone wants to wear something I made, it’s very affirming to know that I as a blind person can make something that is pleasing to a sighted person, I never know if the coloring works okay, of course I go by texture, and usually the coloring works out”.
Ceinwen also told some great stories about the Halloween costumes she’s made over the years. From a Chinese dragon to a rat, a parrot, a penguin, a giant panda, a spider and an alligator, she knows how to have fun with masks and costumes! She said, “the thing about my costumes is that they cover my entire head, there’s not an eye hole because I don’t need to see – why would I want an eye hole that don’t belong in this costume? I have a little hole somewhere so I can breathe that’s all I need! … People always say, ‘ how can you see out of that?!’ and I just say I can see as well as I can see any other day! They don’t get it – they don’t believe that I’m actually truly blind.”
Due to her work schedule, Ceinwen isn’t able to participate in the Touch Art workshops. Hopefully with the training for the art educators we will be one step towards making art-making workshops open and accessible to Ceinwen and other folks who are blind or visually impaired and have full time jobs. When she’s not singing in one of the 4 choirs she participates in, teaching Russian and Chinese, traveling the world, or beading necklaces Ceinwen would love to take an art workshop. Hopefully with the teacher training we’re offering through the Touch Art seminar in January, this will be possible!