Touching Imagination: Unlocking the Creativity of Blind Artists

Here is the transcription of a speech I gave at the National Federation of the Blind Convention in Orlando, Florida. This piece was originally published in the Braille Monitor in 2017.

From the Editor: Ann Cunningham is an artist who works as the art instructor at the Colorado Center for the Blind. Sometimes our biggest problem is not what we do not know. It is that we do not know what we do not know and therefore never have a clue about how to inquire into or learn about it. Such has been my experience far too often when things are not verbal or don’t impress themselves on me tactilely. Art falls into this category. I know that art is something I cannot see, so I immediately write it off as one of those opportunities I cannot enjoy, and I content myself by rejoicing in those I can. There’s nothing wrong about being grateful for enjoying what one can or admitting that blindness means some things we cannot enjoy. The problem happens when I too quickly write off art as something that cannot be meaningful to me when the truth is that it can if only I am willing to open my mind to explore it. The speech which follows has encouraged me to rethink what art can mean for me, and the artist who is so committed to opening this possibility for blind people is as articulate as she is artistic. Here is her well-crafted and beautifully delivered presentation made on July 15, 2017, at the convention:

Thank you so much, President Riccobono, for inviting me here today to talk to my Federation family about tactile art. I’ve been a member of the Federation since 1999, and what brought me to the Federation was my artwork. I’m a stone sculptor and tactile artist, and I’m proud to be able to say I teach art at the Colorado Center for the Blind [cheers]. Back when I was first starting, I was a typical artist making visual art, but as I sculpted the stone I realized that the feel of it under my hands as I created the form kept suggesting this touch thing seems powerful. There really is something here. Eventually I was introduced to the people who would help me start figuring out all this stuff at the Colorado center. I began teaching art classes and have been exploring what art can be with students and staff ever since. Our motto is, “If it feels right, it is right.”

I began attending National Federation of the Blind national conventions in 2001—anyone here remember Philadelphia? [cheers] I had an art exhibit in the exhibit hall that year. I have presented art-related activity every year since. For the last seven years Debbie Kent Stein from Illinois and I have been collaborating on programming for our drop-in art room. I know a number of you do know about it because each year we have the tables filled with artists and artists-in-the-making as they play with aromatic homemade playdough or create raised-line drawings on the Sensational BlackBoard or check out the original works of art displayed around the perimeter of the room. Many outstanding volunteers have made this experience fulfilling and fun.

But I know a whole lot more of you might be wondering, “Tactile art? What’s that?” because there are far more of us in this general assembly than end up in the art room. So let me give you my definition.

I define tactile art as artwork that can be understood through touch. Even though it might look pretty good too, the looks are secondary instead of the focus. The focus is now placed squarely on how effectively the sculpture can communicate with others when someone places their hands on the artwork. We can also add more sense into the mix. This year we had a number of people experience our first instillation artwork called “Off the Path.” This piece created an environment that included lots of full-surround tactile input as well as layered sounds and smells.

Okay, so art is nice. It can be fun, maybe inspiring; it even offers a way for people to express themselves. And yet you still might not be convinced that this is where your energy needs to go. Let’s take a moment and look at the flipside of this coin: tactile graphics. Images can give us a way to study and share complex ideas that would take hours to explain and multiple times to comprehend. For instance, how much different do you think a student’s learning outcomes would be if as a matter of course they had an image to go along with the description of a human skeleton? If a student could feel the bones as they are described and examine the joints as they are explained and go back and study them after class on their own; do you think they might understand more concepts and retain more information? [applause]

Charts of all kinds—graphs, maps, and diagrams fall under the heading of tactile graphics. No one comes into the world knowing how to interpret pictures. Sighted parents spend hours poring over baby books teaching sighted children to read pictures. I’m not sure that parents know that’s actually what they’re doing. Parents are drawn to these activities because they are fun, entertaining, and educational for both the child and the care provider. I have seen people of all ages quite easily begin learning how to interpret tactile images once they have the opportunity. But how much more fluent would a person be if they were using tactile pictures as tools from the time they were small? Picture books should be a part of every child’s education—whether blind or sighted. [applause]

Looking at pictures should just be one part of the visual literacy. Just as verbal literacy is broken into two parts, reading and writing, I see picture interpretation as one part and picture creation as the other. Think about it for a moment: there should be no reason that blind people should not be the creators of tactile images as well as the consumers. [applause] It does take skill and education to create tactile images, but it does not take sight. Tactile images need to be formatted differently from visual images, but who knows that better than a tactile picture consumer? We need to discover the best way to tactile literacy, and the American Action Fund’s initiative is taking an amazing step with their tactile art kits. If you know of a blind child, I hope that you will help connect them with this program so that Mrs. Maurer and our team can learn how to best develop this important early learning activity.

Thank you to the NFB. Thanks to the NFB, I know that all of this is possible. For the last two summers I have been invited to teach at the summer EQ STEAM Program in Baltimore with Natalie Shaheen. I am the drafting instructor. We gathered the tools together so that students would have what they need to accomplish the task I would instruct them in. All I needed to do was teach. I have the faith because I have had so many successes at the Colorado Center for the Blind over the years. This is because of Julie Deden’s prime directive: When we ask her if we can do something, she always says, “Sure. Go figure it out.” So I have come to believe that it is all possible.

So we planned into the curriculum that I would teach the students first how to sketch out their ideas to build their boats out of PVC pipes, tarps, and tape. But the real kicker was that after that, one person from each of the teams needed to do an orthographic projection and isometric perspective of their final boat design to include in their deliverables. Now, if you need to look that up to understand it, don’t feel alone; I did too. But what I want to share with you is that these are the vital engineering skills that a person’s future could turn on. I’d never taught it before, but when the day came, we had to try. So I approached it as logically as I could. We started a cube drawing in perspective, first. I held up the cube in front of the student and said, “Look at this model. The lines will represent each corner.” Step by step, this young lady, who is totally blind and at the beginning of the week was learning how to hold a pen, worked through the drawing. First a vertical line, then two thirty-degree horizontal lines—not just because I was telling her what to do, but because she could feel the cube; she knew where the corners needed to be represented, and she could understand how the principles needed to be applied. She figured out what needed to be drawn next. I have to say it was breathtaking—and we both let out our breath—but we also noticed that a number of other teachers had gathered around when they let out their collective breath as well. It is still exciting for me to see the understanding light up in someone’s face when they learn these techniques.

But the real test is can the students use these concepts by applying what they have learned to other projects? Well I am very happy to say that I have seen numerous students successfully use these skills to then illustrate the boats that their team had constructed.

I recently received a grant from Arts in Society, an art organization in Denver. I am collaborating with a graduate of the Colorado Center for the Blind, Jenny Callahan, to see if we can develop her own tactile mapping company. I have never done anything like this before, but I am very confident that we will figure it out. [applause]

This year the NFB has sponsored three tactile art and tactile graphics symposia. I have worked with Anil Lewis and Lou Ann Blake in an effort to develop a corps of people who are interested in talking through all the issues that we need to address. The first event was in Baltimore, the second was held in Colorado in collaboration with the Colorado Center, and the third is a collaborative event with the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco. At each of these small gatherings we expand our circles of friends and our understanding of the issues a bit further.

Now, I am a sighted artist, but I know that my inkling of a belief that there is something powerful here is now a full-blown understanding that there is so much more to our experience of the world than visual input. I know far more is attributed to vision than it actually deserves credit for. NFB member Peter Slayton—who is also an artist—said, “We need to change the perspective on how we frame what we are doing to illuminate the assets of tactile art. What can we do beyond visual art?”

Well, one thing we know is that we can feel 360 degrees at once; no one can see that. What else is possible? I am sighted, but by spending time exploring my world through my other senses, I realize that when I close my eyes, I suddenly expand my world in whole new ways that are unexpected, enlightening, and exciting. I am inspired by the moment that I had at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind. I was commissioned to create an accessible work of art for their newly-renovated dorm. I met with the student council to talk about what they might like to have included in an art experience. What I experienced was a room filled with more people who were deaf than were hearing. At one point—as a hearing person—I became disabled to fluently participate in the conversation because the signers were talking much faster than the interpreters could voice for me. I want to invite you to work with us on flipping our situation in new ways, too. Wouldn’t it be great to walk into a multisensory art exhibit where people who only know how to look at the world miss the crux of the entire exhibit? [applause]

Thanks to creative initiatives like the tactile art box by the American Action Fund, I look forward to the day—and I hope it’s soon—when I hear a young blind child saying, “What do you mean that in the old days we didn’t have pictures?”

We have some thoughtful vendors who are promoting innovative products, like the Graphiti at American Printing [House for the Blind]—I hope you guys got to see that, the art exhibits by Touch Graphics, digital images by Irie-AT, and school workbooks by E.A.S.Y. LLC, and many more. Like HumanWare, all vendors need to know what you need. This helps them go straight for what is needed most. Share your ideas; there is so much to do. There is plenty of space for all of us because what we are trying to do is not to duplicate but to echo the artistic and communication progress that has been made in the visual world since the Renaissance. My personal theory is that we behaved as multisensory beings before the invention of glasses, lenses, mirrors, and cameras. They introduced those innovations that emphasized the visual sense. Let’s work together to reclaim and elevate our other senses. [applause]

But we need you. Debbie Kent Stein and I are honored to be asked to start the NFB Tactile Art Group. We have an NFB listserv called “Artists Making Art,” and we have a Facebook page called “Tactile Art and Tactile Graphics Symposium.” This sounds good, but we need someone who knows how to make these useful, and it is not me. If you’re sitting here and thinking you would like to get involved, please do. We need you, we need your ideas and your artwork to inspire us, and we need your help spreading the word—can you write? We need your ideas about how to move forward. Jim Jackson from Oregon had an idea to have a tactile map contest for people to make and display maps of our hotel next year. What a great idea. [cheers]

We’ll be able to show just how creative folks can get and how useful images can be, but we can’t do this alone, nor do we want to do it alone. If you are a person who has ideas or abilities to share, or just the interest, please connect with me at ann@acunningham.com. We need your help and your ideas and your energy and enthusiasm. Next year let’s make the art room a place of wonder! [applause]

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