Visual art and the visually impaired
There are many areas of the art world where lack of sight or limited vision quite obviously need not be a great impediment to development and success. Andrea Bocelli, the famous and popular tenor whose voice is beloved around the world, completely lost his sight at age twelve after an accident during a soccer game. Twenty year old Nobuyuki Tsujii, the Japanese pianist whose playing captured hearts and delighted ears at an international piano competition this year, has been blind since birth. As in the wider world, there are many aids that can be used to get around potential problems, and no one has difficulty understanding how a blind person can be a talented musician, for example.
It is perhaps more surprising to discover the relationship between sculpture and the visually impaired – after all, much of our ordinary experience of a sculpture is visual, both in the making and in appreciating it afterwards. Yet a few moments’ thought would be sufficient for one to realize that there is a very natural connection there – a sculpture has an obvious tactile as well as visual element. Visually impaired sculptor Didier Roule suggested that not focusing on the visual aspect of sculpture actually gives him an advantage, because it allows him to be more attentive to other details, to feel things through the materials that others might not notice. New York’s MoMA usually arranges tours for the visually impaired on Tuesdays, and their sculpture garden of course provides an unusual but appropriate place to appreciate art – with one’s fingertips. The Louvre actually has a special area designed for appreciation by the visually impaired – the Tactile Gallery, a favorite with all visitors and ages.
There have also been public art projects directed primarily at the blind or visually impaired – for example the ‘Braille Graffiti’ in Portland, Oregon, created by Scott Wayne Indiana. His idea was to take the concept of braille in public spaces, which is almost always purely functional – directions, street names, etc – and use it to create a special moment for a blind person who happened to come across his braille sentences. One example, for instance, read ‘You don’t have to be blind to see that the writing is on the wall.’
You might think, however, that visual art represents one field where the other senses would not be enough to compensate for a lack of or poor eyesight. Visual art is called visual art for a reason – because the primary way of engaging with it is through the visual faculty. Artists sometimes spend years developing their ‘eye’, their ability to see things in a particular way and present that image to their audience. You might say that a blind person couldn’t paint, because they simply couldn’t see the image appearing on the canvas. You might think all this, but you’d be wrong.
Turkish painter Esref Armagan has been blind all his life, but he does not find that this prevents him from painting, and it certainly didn’t stop him from accepting Volvo’s suggestion that he be the only artist allowed to give a sneak preview of a new car, months before it was due to appear officially to the public. There’s a video available that shows the ‘blind preview’ and how the artist went over the car and then painted what he’d ‘seen’ – with all his senses other than sight, of course.
San Francisco has an annual juried show called ‘Insights’ which is devoted to the work of legally blind artists. It has been running for twenty years now, and has grown in prestige, fame and strength. Originally there were only thirteen pieces in the exhibition, which focused on works of tactile interest. Now, though, the emphasis of the 120 or so pieces on display is very much on the visual, and interpretations of what visual can mean. Lawrence Rinder, the director of the Berkeley Art Museum and one of this year’s jurors for the exhibition, points out that this draws attention to the fact that blind artists fit into a natural space in the broader artistic tradition. “We all have limits of perception, and all artists work within that envelope,” he says.
Dave Wisniewski, whose work was selected to be part of the 2009 Chelsea International Fine Art Competition exhibition (the 2010 Chelsea International Fine Art Competition, incidentally, begins accepting entries in February), finds that his impaired vision contributes in important ways to his art. Most noticeably, it affects the size of his work, obliging him to create on a larger scale than most and resulting in imposing pieces and characters. In a more subtle sense, though, it impacts on the way he presents his ideas to the world. One of the characteristics of the personalities he captures on canvas, as you can see from those included in this post, is that their eyes are shaded, making it difficult to tell whether these larger than life characters are really looking at you or not – an experience his poor eyesight has made common in his everyday life, and which he can thus share with the viewer.
Lotfi B. Merabet, from Harvard Medical School, explains in a New York Times article that visually impaired artists, including those who are blind from birth, are giving expression to the pictures and representations that exist in a deep part of the mind, accessible through visual paths, but in other ways as well. This explanation bridges the gap between the surprise and the fact of the art; it turns out that images are not as visual as we thought. The art of the visually impaired expresses their mental imagery.
Even with this new understanding, there remain unexpected cases. Perhaps the most surprising of the artists who have shown work in ‘Insights’ are those like Pete Eckert, whose work is in photography, which he edits with the help of his wife. He relies particularly on his sense of sound and the way that he can perceive sound waves bouncing off objects around him. He uses his camera to reflect the pictures he sees in his mind’s eye, whilst remaining rooted in the world he senses around him. In addition, in what may be a truly new departure, this year’s ‘Insight’ exhibition included as a juror a visually impaired artist who had had her work included in a previous exhibition. She examined each piece carefully on a laptop, in a darkened room, sometimes using a monocular telescope.
Have you heard of other instances of blind or visually impaired artists exercising their creative talents in exciting and perhaps unexpected ways? Do let us know in the comments!