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Local galleries make art accessible to the visually impaired

Please do touch the art! 

Local galleries make art accessible to the visually impaired

In a classroom nestled into a corner of the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), Cynthia Dopko has just unlocked a supply cabinet--the same kind of supply cabinet that businesses employ to hold letterhead, pens, and memo pads; the same kind that rests against back walls of garages everywhere to house half-full paint cans and colonies of webs. What Dopko extracts from its ordinary shelves is infinitely more interesting than paper clips or caulking guns.

She's pulling out treasures: a craggy bronze bust of Abraham Lincoln, a simple and fluid marble dove, a small plaster head of a child. She transports them from their assigned perches to a rectangular table, finding space for a dozen or so disparate rarities upon its surface. "Go ahead," she tells me. "Touch them."

The cardinal rule has always been "look, but don't touch"--a directive we've heard repeated incessantly while on field trips as children--and an instruction we sometimes have to remind ourselves of when encountering a work that draws us as adults. The booty that emerges from the depths of this closet is exceptional in that it welcomes the press of palms and fondling of fingers. It's designed for touch, to accommodate those unable to look.

For the sighted (who, if reading this paper you must be), the enjoyment of the visual arts by the non-visual has probably never come to mind. Chances are many of us don't have any blind friends, and if asked to name a blind person may only be able to come up with Helen Keller or Daredevil. But estimates report some 150,000 people in North Carolina are vision impaired, with a sizable percentage of them Triangle residents. Dopko has been instrumental in creating a variety of programs at the NCMA, and a portion of her efforts have gone toward instituting opportunities for the visually impaired to partake in the museum's bounty. "It's something very valuable and needed," she says. "We want the museum to be accessible and beneficial to all members of the population."

On selecting works apt for the visually impaired, traditional figurative bronze sculpture is the most obvious--lots of texture in familiar shapes. There are other possibilities, though. Modern sculptures at the museum are on the touch tour, and outdoor ones boast the added boon of permitting caresses sans gloves. The classical collection offers a Roman funerary stele that morphs from rough stone to elaborate facade, while the Judaic collection contributes a metal wall marker with numerous surfaces--profiled lions, waving banners, a brick wall, ropy vines and dimensional flowers. Some of the works, once you've begun to relate them to a sense other than sight, seem intended for tactile investigation. Future museum plans include a frame exhibition--capitalizing on the ornate carvings some flaunt, a canvas devised by the conservation staff using varied types of paint and techniques, and a touch and smell tour of the museum's outdoor garden, with aromatic herbs and fuzzy lamb's ear plants, which Dopko describes as being "like pets."

The Rodin exhibition, presented in 2000, was a turning point in touchable arts. Lending itself beautifully to touch, it provided the occasion to cater a tour specifically to the visually impaired community. It also provided Dopko with an introduction to Gary Ray.

"When the Rodin exhibit came, I said, 'damn, I want to check that out.' And I found out I could do that!" Ray exclaims. "I found out I could put on gloves and actually feel up some of the art!" Ray, who works at the N.C. Library for the Blind, lost his sight in adulthood and remembers time spent at the museum when sighted. "I grew up in libraries and museums," he says. "But until they started offering special programs, they had nothing for me. That world was blocked off." Ray has since devoted himself to encouraging programs for the blind in all art venues in Raleigh, regardless of discipline.

After visiting the Rodan exhibit, Ray went to work on NCMA. "You have to find someone who will say, 'what can we do to reach out to this segment of the community,'" he says. "Cynthia has taken it up. She's had the willingness to be a crusader." Dopko had already been working with Betty Haskins in Cultural Services at Duke Eye Center, who was in the process of training a group of docents on how best to explain the art to the blind. Ray joined in as guinea pig, and pushed for a lecture and touch tour to be offered during the recent St. Gaudens exhibition. And while tremendous progress has been made, the work continues. Museum publications aren't printed in braille, and though there haven't been many requests for it, large print guides are available for many museum programs. Touch tours can also be arranged and Dopko says she would like to have them on a monthly basis. While advances have undoubtedly been made, Dopko believes there's much more to be done. Ray agrees. "Part of our goal is to have the museum the way it was many years ago," he says.

When the NCMA lived downtown some decades back, there was a permanent gallery for the blind. In 1982, the museum relocated to its present home, but the gallery didn't. Much of the collection went to the Morehead School for the Blind, but for reasons of time, space and finance, sat in storage until 1985, when plans for its renewal began.

In 1988 many of the works relocated to the Touchable Art Gallery, which is part of Duke Eye Center. Betty Haskins, who works in cultural services at the center, has curated the NCMA's discarded collection of 100 or so pieces into a changing space that primarily serves the center's visitors, but also admits groups from adult care facilities and the general public. "It's useful to all the patients, but to those with no vision difficulties as well," she says. Recently, caregivers brought a group of Alzheimer's patients from a retirement community, because they felt they could relate to the hands-on experience the gallery provides.

As well as sculpture and fiber art pieces, the gallery includes masks and musical instruments, with new exhibitions every six months that flag around 35 pieces at a time. Currently, they're presenting Women of Vision: An Experience in Seeing by the Visually Impaired, which features the work of a dozen women, all visually impaired or blind. "I saw it in Jacksonville [Fla.] about a year ago and thought, we gotta get this up here," Haskins says. "It was a really positive message for people experiencing vision loss."

"My number one criteria has always been to have a good work of art, a wonderful piece" says Haskins, on the process of obtaining new works for the collection, "but there are some wonderful things shown in galleries that we would choose not to show." It's essential here that works are suitable for the circumstances as a large percentage of visitors are those who've recently begun losing their sight. "People are coming into our facilities all the time under a great deal of stress, so if something is confrontational--may create more stress--we choose not to show it."

For those who are interested, it's the mission of Dopko, Haskins and Ray to deliver art--literally--into their hands. Word of mouth on touchable arts programs has spread through Ray's library, since typical information sources don't usually reach the blind. "It's just like [with] regular people," says Ray. "There's some people that ain't gonna go to the damn art museum. 'Whaddaya mean go to the play?'" he hollers in mock indignation. "'What the hell do I want to do that for?'" But there are those who come to it gladly. Ray brought a man to the Rodin exhibition who'd been blind since birth. "He was so excited to get to touch the statues," he says.

In the NCMA classroom, I'm encouraged to grope a rooster carved by a staff member in imitation of a coconut jar. I get to sift through the layers of a reproduction of an African ceremonial costume, and close my eyes to better feel the difference in textiles upon my skin. An ancient American ceramic Chihuahua has rounded eyes and flared nostrils and it's easy to see, through touch, the points of his teeth bared in a grin. Outside in the museum proper, I look at the rooster impersonated differently. Now I know how he feels. It's kind of amazing. Techniques used to introduce the elements of visual art to those without sight can change the way we all look at it. EndBlock

Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, State Library of North Carolina, 1811 Capital Boulevard, Raleigh. 733-4376 or (888) 388-2460, TDD: 733-1462. Open Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. E-mail: nclbph@ncmail.net or visit statelibrary.dcr.state.nc.us/lbph/lbph.htm.

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