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Art and Low-Vision: A Multi-Sensory Museum Experience

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Why would someone with low vision choose to become an artist or feel passion about viewing and visiting great works of art in an art museum? As a senior librarian at the Andrew Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library and an artist and painter with low vision, I have found that the act of painting provides me with a great way of getting in touch with my inner self, a way of creating a sense of "mindfulness" where one can be present in the moment and reduce the feeling of stress in one's life.

I recently discovered that I am not alone in wanting to get back to my artistic roots, and to be able to experience the joy of going to an art museum. The weekend of October 26-28, just before Hurricane Sandy hit, I attended a conference at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Multimodal Approaches to Learning Conference.

At the conference, I learned how museums and educators are creating ways to include people with vision loss and other disabilities into the museum experience by incorporating: touch, sound, smell, drama, verbal description, and the use of artist tools and art making.

The keynote speaker Peter Sellars, theater and opera director, spoke about how we cannot do things alone, and we should look deeply and listen deeply. No one sees what we see, no two people have the same set of skills and insights, we all are wired differently.

In a workshop using scent in art, I learned that the same scent can smell differently if given a different label, such as cheese or vomit; or by changing the color of lights in an olfactory art sculpture from red to blue. In the roundtable "Putting Theory into Practice," several museum curators and educators, spoke about personalizing the museum experience and creating multisensory exhibits. John Bramblitt, an artist who lost his sight, had to find new ways to do his art again by using other senses and art materials. He brought in some of his paintings, where I was able to feel the contrast of a smooth plastic background and the raised ridges of his acrylic paint.

Richard Pousette-Dart (1916–1992), The Magnificent, ©1950–1951. Oil on canvas, 86 1/4 × 44 in. (219.08 x 111.76 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mrs. Ethel K. Schwabacher 53.43Richard Pousette-Dart (1916–1992), The Magnificent, ©1950–1951. Oil on canvas, 86 1/4 × 44 in. (219.08 x 111.76 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; gift of Mrs. Ethel K. Schwabacher 53.43The last day of the conference, I went on a verbal description and touch tour at the Whitney Museum, led by Danielle Linzer, where we viewed an abstract painting, "The Magnificent," by Richard Pousette-Dart, which we were able to touch after donning silk gloves. 

I was amazed by the amount of texture I could feel on the painting, which I was unaware of when I just looked at the piece. I remembered Richard Pousette-Dart from my student days at the Art Student League of New York, he taught classes across the hall from where I painted and studied with the artist Knox Martin.

This was then followed by a tour of scent, sound and touch at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We began with trying to guess the smell of frankincense which is used in churches and other spiritual places and ceremonies. This feeling of spirituality was followed by a visit to the Oceanic art room, where we learned about the "slit gong" which looks like a giant totem, but has the capability of making sounds to be used in religious ceremonies and to communicate emergencies. I ended the tour with a studio based art-making workshop, taught by artist Pamela Lawton, where using charcoal and conte crayon; I created several contour drawings made by feeling my face and recreating the contours I felt on the paper. We then went into the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum and drew from a sculpture that was described to us before we drew it. It was rejuvenating for me to be drawing again.

This experience will not end, and others with vision loss or are blind can enjoy a museum experience. Museums and educators around New York City are offering monthly described tours and including multisensory elements in museum exhibits.

See these links for more about art and low vision:

"Celestial Vibration" (lifecast, wood, acrylic on canvas) 32"x 40", ©1990 By Dana Simon. Branches, twigs and other elements swirl and radiate around the serene face of a woman that floats in an aqua and shadowy pool."Celestial Vibration" (lifecast, wood, acrylic on canvas) 32"x 40", ©1990 By Dana Simon. Branches, twigs and other elements swirl and radiate around the serene face of a woman that floats in an aqua and shadowy pool.

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