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!