Seeing is Feeling – Art & Experience for Visually Impaired Individuals

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Unknown photographer, Rebecca Soyer touching Chaim Gross’ Sculpture Young Girl, 1926, archives of the Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation.

Contemporary culture is permeated with sensory experiences that envelope our daily lives. Educational reformer, John Dewey (1938), stated that knowledge is formed by assigning meaning to the sensory experiences that bombard us. We learn when we take notice of sensory information (qualities) that are present in our environment and can attach language to these experiences so we can store them for later recall and sort them into categories so we can see connections between this experience and other experiences. Since just the act of living causes us to experience qualities (sensory information) we are often oblivious of it. It is only when we act upon, assign feelings and react to the information that we form a learning experience.

Learning is not a passive event, therefore we have to actively participate with the incoming information and do something with it in order for this information to hold meaning for us. We draw upon our past history of experience with these sensory qualities and over time form habits, which connect these experiences with feelings and act and react to these sensory qualities. Moreover, Dewey and other Constructivist and progressive thinkers uphold the theory that knowledge is derived from social interactions with others.

Taking this into account, I wanted to investigate how the field of art education addresses pedagogy of active learning that is inclusive of individuals who are either legally blind or visually impaired. These issues have always been of interest to me as an artist, art historian, curator and educator, because I believe that everyone should have accessibility to the visual arts. Art enriches people’s lives and gives them an expressive means for communicating symbolically.

In an earlier post, I discussed how Sculpture for the Blind, by the Blind (2017) by the artist Lenka Clayton, utilizes sensory, inquiry and collaborative learning techniques to re-present the work of Brancusi’s Sculpture for the Blind (1920) in a manner that is accessible and relevant to viewers who are blind or visually impaired.

The aforementioned post also discusses the work of seminal art educator Viktor Lowenfeld and psychologist John M. Kennedy, whose experiential and multisensory pedagogical processes can be utilized to prompt aesthetic responses from visually impaired individuals. Through innovative methods, theories and techniques, artists, art students and art appreciators who have trouble seeing, can immerse themselves in both the creation and viewing of art in profound and personal ways.

Because the arts are so important to our social, emotional and cognitive development, many significant programs have been introduced to make art accessible to the population that is most vulnerable to being left out of aesthetic experiences. It is entirely possible and necessary to include resources in museums and in educational settings that can be accessible by sighted and visually impaired people alike. In fact, including more sensory based learning and viewing opportunities is beneficial for everyone, because as Mitchell (2005) asserts, there are no uniquely visual media even in the most obviously arguable instance of a painting. Mitchell argues that painting is associated with other forms of language and the act of painting isn’t purely visual at all. He states, “seeing painting is seeing touching, seeing the hand gestures of the artist, which is why we are so rigorously prohibited from actually touching the canvas” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 258).

Major museums, like the Cooper Hewitt and  Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) have implemented programs for the public that include ‘touch tours’ where visually impaired visitors are able to feel the works of art while lecturers give detailed aesthetic descriptions of the piece. Ideally, these descriptions and proceeding discussions paint a picture in the ‘mind’s eye’ of the visitor.

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Visitors are engaged in tactile observations of a sculpture by Chaim Gross. Courtesy of The Renee & Chaim Gross Foundation, New York.

One recent example of an educational curriculum being developed and implemented for blind and visually impaired individuals is the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation’s “Tactile Transmissions,” a public educational program that is in conjunction with their current exhibition Teaching Through Touch: Works By Chaim Gross, curated by Sasha Davis and Brittany Cassandra.

During his illustrious career as one of the preeminent American Modernist sculptors, Chaim Gross (1904-1991) implored viewers of his sculptures to engage with them in both a visual and tactile fashion. As a part of his artistic philosophy, Gross wanted viewers to be able to interact with his art through touch, in order to learn first-hand about sculpture and connect to it in a more personal way.

Because sculpture exists in the same dimension as we do, touching sculptural works enables us to experience its three-dimensional form in a profound and engaging way. Additionally, Gross made many of his sculptures using natural materials such as wood, which he hand carved. Therefore, the surface areas of many of his sculptures are brimming with exquisite texture and other elements of art. You can literally feel the artist’s hand and tools that he used for making all of the intricate marks and forms. Allowing all viewers to touch these works of art, provides an intimate hands-on experience that gives insight into how Chaim Gross worked in his studio.

Along with teaching artists (Nitza Danieli, Pamela Lawton, Annie Leist and Deborah Lutz), participants in the at the Renee and Chaim Gross Foundation’s “Tactile Transmissions” workshops analyze sculptures and drawings by Gross through multisensory activities and then create their own tactile works of art based on a specific theme (the topic is different each session).

Another seminal organization for developing curricula and technology to facilitate artistic learning for visually impaired students is Art Education for the Blind (AEB). AEB was founded in 1987 by museum educator, Elisabeth Salzhauer Axel, as a reaction to the lack of widely available programs and resources for blind and visually impaired individuals to access and appreciate the fine arts. AEB has published many resources to rectify this issue, including a comprehensive multimedia package titled Art History Through Touch and Sound: A Multisensory Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The publication combines audio narrative with an interactive book on the history of art that uses tactile diagrams to guide the reader’s recognition of specific works of art. AEB’s resources and materials are widely used in museums and institutions throughout the world. AEB also works within school environments.

Psychologist John M. Kennedy has also been highly influential in developing contemporary practices for integrating tactile and other sensory explorations within visual art making and appreciation. According to Kennedy, “blind people are intuitively capable of understanding the visual world, even without training or education.” However, with instructional scaffolding and proper sensory resources, the blind and visually impaired individual’s experience with visual art can be just as replete as it is for sighted people.

Kennedy’s (in Bird, 1991) work with blind individuals creates an equal learning situation for them in the classroom. He used malleable rubber drawing boards, which allowed students to touch their drawings that they carved into the rubber sleeve. Using a simple ballpoint pen creates enough pressure to create a raised line on the board. Through this process, students learned about many of the important formal elements of art (line, shape, texture, pattern) and also formulated a comprehension of symbolic meaning, i.e. the changing shape of a car’s wheel to suggest motion (Bird, 1991).

Using raised line drawings and/or three-dimensional models enables blind students to experience the qualities (sensory information) of a work of art or architecture. This also can be helpful in providing context if for example, when learning about the Gothic cathedrals, the students can feel the shape and outline of either a drawing or model, which along with a historical and detailed description from their teacher will provide a vivid aesthetic sensibility in the student’s mind. The haptic experience coupled with a trip to a cathedral and/or the student’s previous encounter(s) inside of a church or place of worship, provides conditions for the type of perception that Dewey (1938) described as assigning meaning to an experience.

Pompano (2007) described how tactile learning, such as touching an object like a chair, allows visually impaired students to understand an object’s formal qualities as well as its essence. Her research with blind students explored the possibilities of learning through tactile and systematic approaches while studying the design of chairs. In other words, teachers can guide the students through the physical experience by describing the different parts of the chair while the student’s hands are touching it. In addition to the physical experience, the teacher will impart historical and technical knowledge upon the students regarding the chairs. While the students are engaging in the tactile discovery of the chair, the teacher can have them think about the common parts of the chairs they are engaging with and then list them. Teachers should coach the student along in their discoveries by asking the students questions about what they’re observing so that the experience of sensory perception and formal analysis become learned habits.

Art educators can make the leap from their students’ recognition of an object to their perception of an experience through social interaction and situated learning in the classroom. Verbal communication from the teacher is a key component to both recognition and perception. It can be equally helpful for sighted and blind students in the same classroom to hear the teacher describe an aesthetic object in terms of its features, which include but are not limited to physicality, location, history and narrative.

According to Castellano (1996), the goal is to have the blind student become a full participant both inside school and in their community. She suggests an increased verbal communicative approach in the classroom, wherein the teacher describes what is going on in the classroom in great detail so that the student can get as clear a picture of the lesson plan as the sighted students. Paying attention to details can help the visually impaired student construct a mental picture within the art classroom. It is through instructional scaffolding that the arts educator can help the blind student associate certain aesthetic qualities of an artwork with their own life experience.

Kuell (2009) describes a case study of a blind student named Melissa who was encouraged by her art teacher, Verna O’Donnell, to create art in the same capacity as sighted students. O’Donnell’s methodology came through trial and error, but she always had several backup plans if one method wasn’t working or engaging. She came up with a way that Melissa could explore art making through sensory perception such as focusing in on the smell and feel of the art materials. O’Donnell also organized her art classroom with very tactile objects (vibrant masks etc.) that both her blind and sighted students would appreciate. She also chose art units that would tap into the student’s personality and creativity such as mask making and imaginary landscapes. Through encouragement of both the teacher and her classmates, Melissa built up her confidence in addition to developing artistically along with the rest of her classmates. In fact, the other students asked O’Donnell about ways they could make their artwork more tactile, so that they would be appreciated and become accessible to everyone in the class.

In conclusion, it is definitely possible for blind individuals to comprehend visual media similarly to those who can see it. Classroom teachers and museum educators should understand how they can create an atmosphere in the classroom or museum that will support and prompt students/visitor’s awareness of the sensory information we are often oblivious or refrained from employing when interacting with art. Every museum collection can be combed through in order to find works of art that would be stable and captivating enough to be handled and expressly interpreted in a tactile manner.

Through both classroom/gallery conversation, tactile exploration and studio time, visually impaired individuals can relate haptic information to their experiences and connect essential qualities to these experiences that are necessary for learning. As educators, we can enhance the experience by asking engaging questions, passionately describing aesthetic qualities by incorporating a wide variety of sensory images and encouraging students to express themselves by forming habits of artistic learning. This will give a wide range of people the confidence and joy that art and art education should have on their lives.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Art Education for the Blind and American Printing House for the Blind . Art History Through Touch and Sound: A Multisensory Guide for the Blind and Visually Impaired. 1998. Louisville: Optical Touch Systems Publishers.

Bird, K. (1991). The Possibilities of Art Education for the Blind. Future Reflections, 10 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr10/issue3/f100325.html

Castellano, C. (1996). The Blind Child in the Regular Elementary Classroom. Future Reflections, 15 (3). Retrieved from https://nfb.org/Images/nfb/Publications/fr/fr15/Issue3/f150302.html

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & Education. New York: MacMillan.

Grimm, D. (2010) Teaching art to the blind student. Art Education Daily. Retrieved from

http://arteducationdaily.blogspot.com/2010/12/teaching-art-to-blind-student.html

Kuell, C. (2009). Tapping the Creativity of Blind and Visually Impaired Students. Dialogue, 45 (2) Retrieved from https://nfb.org/images/nfb/publications/fr/fr28/3/fr280307.htm

Lowenfeld, V. (1939). The Nature of Creative Activity. New York, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

Mitchell, W.J. 2005. “There Are No Visual Media.” Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2).

Pompano, J. (2001). Teaching Art to the Blind / A Study of Chairs. Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Retrieved from http://teachersinstitute.yale.edu/curriculum/units/2001/2/01.02.07.x.html

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