Arts In Society Grant Update

Working in class, Jenny is adding, colored clay, nerves to the arm of her plastic base model. She has already added muscles of the upper leg and arm, arteries of the arm and hand and a heart.

Jenny is adding, colored clay, nerves to the arm of her plastic base model. She has already added a number of muscles, arteries and organs.

This year I am celebrating my 20th Anniversary of teaching art at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB). As I inch towards retirement I was concerned that the art program would fade away if I didn’t take some action to make sure that a succession plan was in place. To me, this meant that I needed to find a teacher to take the program over after I left.

When I first came to the Center in 1998 I was seeking help with a public art commission at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind in Colorado Springs. My only concern was to make a good piece of art that was also accessible and meaningful to the students.

I found the folks at the Center were happy to help me with critical advice about my approach to my project. I was also introduced to a student who was in the middle of a complex project. He was creating a tactile map of a large hotel in Atlanta, the site of the National Federation of the Blind Convention in 1999. This student asked if I could read floor plans.

And so my education began. David James, whom I was working with, clearly instructed me as we made stairs out of popsicle sticks: “Ann, make a set of stairs. Now close your eyes and make another set and pay attention to how you do it. Make as many as you need to until you figure out what you are doing. Next, tell me.” That was the beginning and has remained the foundation of how I teach. I learned about how genuine accessibility and effective communication can create an inclusive learning environment.

The next year I offered to teach. For many years I was just trying to find the edge of the envelope of what kind of art my students could make. We never did find that limit and I now know that people who are blind are no more limited in their potential than a person with sight. Creative vision does not discriminate!

When I heard about the Arts In Society grant I couldn’t help but think that this might enable me to explore the idea of offering training to a person who was interested in teaching art who was also blind. I had a student in mind and I wrote the grant. Her name is Jenny Callahan and she had gone blind overnight about two years before I met her in my art class. She had just recently graduated from the Center when this opportunity presented itself.

We were awarded the grant in 2017 and so the adventure began. It was not easy for Jenny and me to form this new partnership. And this is where the true value of the grant became apparent, as I felt a huge obligation to make it work or give it back. And so when we ran into an obstacle we would collect ourselves and try again.

Our big breakthrough came when I finally understood that even though she did indeed want to teach art, she had her own ideas about what and how she was going to go about it! It seems funny looking back now that the key trait that anyone needs in the arts is creative thought and that was what was getting in our way. Once I understood that I could best serve our goals by guidance and not instruction we started making headway. We began seeking out specific information to help Jenny accomplish her goals. This has taken the form of offering and taking workshops. We have also been able to order tools and materials for new techniques of art-making for community projects.

The Arts In Society also allowed Jenny to test her abilities when she was able to conceive of and organize a large community project in Orlando, Florida at the National Federation of the Blind Convention. She invited anyone interested to stop by and contribute as much or as little as they wanted to take part in the construction of a huge colorful octopus “Calypso” that was then displayed in the main convention hall where 3000 attendees could appreciate the work of their cohorts.

During this grant we have had the chance to work with Marie Gibbons to learn hand-built clay techniques. Jenny is working with an intern from Katie Caron’s ceramic class at Arapahoe Community College to set up the art room at the Center so that Jenny can offer wheel-thrown pottery instruction. We took a class on costuming from Virgil Ortiz at the Colorado Fine Arts Center. And now we are getting ready to take an anatomy class from Zahourek Systems. These opportunities were made possible by the grant and are essential in building Jenny’s repertoire of creative options.

Our community is growing. Just as I was instructed by my first student. All my students became my instructors.

Jenny is now teaching 3D sculpture at CCB on Fridays. She is offering paper machè, chicken-wire float sculptures, alabaster stone carving, hand-building clay techniques, wax sculpture to be cast in bronze, and whatever else she cares to do! Soon she will also be able to offer wheel-thrown ceramics!

I am teaching a 23-week program to all the students at the Center on Tactile Drawing. It includes concepts of perspective, drafting and STEM illustrations (charts, graphs, maps and diagrams) as well as creative self-expression. And the great news is I am working with a staff member from the Center who is proving to be an adept teacher herself as she quickly learns the concepts and then assists me in teaching. My fingers are crossed that she will be interested in continuing!

This Arts In Society grant continues to make an impact every Tuesday and Friday in art classes at the Colorado Center for the Blind. On the third Tuesday of each month is the Tactile Art Club at CCB from 6:00 pm to 8:00 pm. If you would like to stop by and observe either class please contact me at acunningham@cocenter.org to make arrangements. Or, if you would like to join us for Tactile Art Club, please send me your email address and we will send you an invitation with times and location. Everyone is welcome!

Ann and Mo working with Octavia in the art room

From left to right:
Octavia Johnson (Student, Colorado Center for the Blind), Monique Melton and Ann Cunningham. Photo by Mike Thompson

“I did not have much experience with art when I was younger but I had some with sculpting. I didn’t stick with it because I didn’t quite understand how to go about it or what it was supposed to look like.  Now that I am involved in the creative process of learning how to teach drawing it is definitely harder but it is possible to get so much information from a picture. I think that few blind people believe pictures are going to be valuable but once they understand the process and can apply the concepts they learn more about their world and are able share their imagination.”
Monique Melton
Enrichment Coordinator
Colorado Center for the Blind

Jenny interacting with Marqus who is working with clay

Jenny Callahan teaching art at the Colorado Center for the Blind.                            Photo by Mike Thompson.

“Arts In Society exposed me to many of the creative and supportive opportunities that are in the Denver Arts community. It is innovative and expansive which helped me connect and broaden my network of learning and sharing. Arts In Society gave me the opportunity to connect locally and nationally which enabled me to create, teach, and speak about the importance of tactile art to many larger audiences. It has allowed me to expand awareness to both creators and consumers of what tactile art can be. The key to understanding is that tactile art is not taking a picture and making it touchable but connecting with the source material and making that into a tactile work of art.”
Jenny Callahan
Multi-sensory Artist
3D Art Teacher
Colorado Center for the Blind

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