Touch the art: Program brings blind students to get to know sculpture at The Mount
SculptureNow, a nonprofit arts organization, is motivated to get as many visitors as possible to the annual exhibit of some 30 works displayed outdoors at The Mount, Edith Wharton's home and gardens. That mission includes audience members who can't see in the traditional sense.
A group of 11 students, coordinated through the Pittsfield Public Schools, recently visited the exhibit, marking the third year the group has offered a daylong tour and art-making program for visually impaired and blind people from the region. Previous groups of vision-impaired visitors have included the members of the The Northeastern Association of the Blind at Albany (N.Y.) and the Berkshire Benevolent Association for the Blind.
"Both the adults and children of these groups were amazingly interactive with the works," said SculptureNow Director Ann Jon.
She said she and her SculptureNow tour volunteers intentionally worked to engage the students with the sculpture by asking questions like, "What do you think this is," and "What does it feel like," "What does it sound like and smell like?" They focused the tour on stops at 10 sculptures that are closer together in proximity to the expanse of the grounds, and focused on sculptures made with a variety of materials yielding unique textures.
The visiting students are all members of Camp VISION — Visually Impaired Students In Our Neighborhoods — and came from Grades 2-8. The students also have varying ranges of sight: Some are legally blind while others can make out some light and shape and definition, depending on how near or far they are to a subject.
"Hands-on experiences and getting up close enhances the experience because from a distance you can't always see the detail," said student Gabriel Dahari. "The multisensory approach lets you get more information."
Student Isabella Vera described their visit as "a very fun and interesting adventure.
"It was pretty cool to touch the sculptures as I have never been able to touch art before," student Juliana McGovern said.
Lynn Shortis, Camp VISION coordinator and teacher for the visually impaired, said the students always appreciate field trips that involve tactile experiences.
"The kids kept asking, asking, asking about what they were feeling," Shortis said. "They were totally fascinated by the design materials."
She said she thinks "it's wonderful" that SculptureNow is "in tune to those needs" of visually impaired students, saying that it's usually she who has to approach an organization about making accommodations and asking for tour support.
"A lot of time goes into having the extra components to make sure a place is accessible, hands-on and offers auditory experiences," Shortis said.
During their visit, the students felt the horsehair fibers of Nancy Winship Milliken's "Stall" display, and began braiding them, as they learned to braid the strands of their own hair.
They walked over, and over, and over again through Joseph Carpineto's "Walkabout" constructed with dangling ropes. In his artist's statement on his work he writes, "This sculpture is inspired by a memory of the coarse undershirts my mother made for me from flour sacks. The rough feel of the rope is reminiscent of those undershirts."
Jon herself remembers one of the first times she was approached by a blind person about her art.
"I lived in Italy at the time and was doing marble carving, when a friend brought to me a man who was blind, a solo traveler, and had requested to learn how to carve marble," she said. "I was a little hesitant, but he totally learned. I remember how he touched one of my sculptures, feeling the bottom and remarking how I didn't finish it here. It was a lesson of what a blind person would experience in art that a seeing person would not."
Jon has since worked with places like The Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton to learn how to best design an experience for visually impaired people and how to teach staff to properly interact with them.
"I think a lot of us are kind of afraid to interact with them because they don't know how. I've learned to ask things like, 'How long have you been blind,' and 'How much can you see,' and how you don't talk in a loud voice because they can hear you," Jon said.
A few years ago, when she had student assistants leading clay sculpting activity for the blind and visually impaired, she had the seeing students practice making a sculpture while blindfolded to better understand how the activity might work for someone without sight.
Shortis said it's important for the general public to develop a similar awareness of vision issues and the different ways these issues affect people. For example, Shortis said even though her students may not be able to see a camera or a photograph of themselves, it doesn't mean they can't turn toward the direction of the photographer saying, "Smile!"
"We always talk about how when someone is speaking, you need to be showing that you're attentive and look in that direction," she said.
Reach staff writer Jenn Smith at 413-496-6239.
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