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Fulbrighter at the Library: Fotis Flevotomos Studies the Connection Between Art and Vision
I first met Fotis Flevotomos in June 2011. He had come to New York from Greece to speak on his creative process at The New York Public Library's Low Vision and Blindness Resource Fair. An experienced artist, he was able to do so many things with ease—produce art; pack, transport, and display art; speak articulately about his work as a panelist; and even find a reasonably-priced place to stay in midtown Manhattan.
The following year he presented us with an intriguing proposition: would The Library, and specifically the Outreach Services Department, be willing to host him for a 6-month residency as a Fulbright Visiting Artist, with his topic of study being "Art and Low Vision"?
We had to think about this...
Public libraries are not typical destinations for Fulbright recipients; Fulbrighters are normally hosted by universities or research institutes. Like the Library of Congress, NYPL's research libraries have hosted Fulbright scholars on occasion, when they sought to study topics on which we hold important materials. But, would a practicing artist contribute to the outreach work of the Library? And how could we meet our obligation of providing non-degree study for him? With further reflection we realized that a strongly-motivated artist like Fotis Flevotomos, whose skills included creatively solving problems, would surely come up with ways to further NYPL's mission to inspire lifelong learning, advance knowledge, and strengthen our communities. Between formal staff training sessions on assistive technology and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the opportunity to connect with allied professionals—museum staff working in his area of study—there would be plenty for a library-based artist to learn. Libraries and museums often work together, and NYPL's Andrew Heiskell Braille & Talking Book Library already had a working relationship with a number of local art museums.
So, NYPL's administration took the first step and sent a letter of invitation and support to the Fulbright Selection Committee in Athens. Mr. Flevotomos was subsequently selected, one of eight Greek citizens to come to the U.S. in 2012-2013 under the Fulbright Greek Artists (Fulbright Foreign Student) program.
Arriving in September, Fotis plunged right in, familiarizing himself with NYPL's services for those with vision loss and other disabilities, and joining in the various arts classes, touch tours, lecture/discussion, and audio-described tours for those with blindness/low vision in New York City, including those at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art. He became friends with most of the regular participants in these activities and engaged in a personal mission to find more museum visitors who would benefit by participating in these specially-designed events.
Being an artist, he was always engaged with his personal art work as well. His medium of choice while in NYC was portable and required no clean-up of brushes or hands: an iPad, which he was using for his art for the first time.
Shortly after arriving, Fotis was able to attend an important international conference offered at the Met Museum, and co-sponsored by the Met and Art Beyond Sight, Multimodal Approaches to Learning. He soon learned of the Museum Access Consortium, a group focused on making museums and other cultural organizations more accessible to people with disabilities, and started attending their meetings.
Fotis was able to extend the residency to June 2013, when the grand finale of his stay, Seeing with the Senses: A Celebration of Art for Those with Low Vision and Blindness—would be held: an experience-packed afternoon including a panel discussion on art and low vision, and opportunities for attendees to experience art-making workshops, touch tours, and audio description of works of art.
Although on paper I was Fotis' mentor and adviser for the duration of his Fulbright visit, I thought of him more as a friend and, often, a teacher/guide to me. His research and reflection on topics such as art, music, vision, perception, psychology, mythology, philosophy and science—and the intersections between these far-ranging fields—awed me. Being in regular contact with someone with this breadth of knowledge and skill was a gift, an experience I'll never forget.
A few highlights:
- Fotis became an NYPL blogger, sharing his insights and observations. One of these posts had an audio component, as it discussed the connection between art and music. A series of Monet's paintings was described using a selection from Mozart's repertoire.
- For the Seeing with the Senses program, Metropolitan Museum staff and Fotis hung a number of artworks produced in their Seeing Through Drawing class, which were subsequently exhibited at the Met.
- He attended previews of films selected for the ReelAbilities Film Festival, and his insights helped us puzzle out which films might be appropriate for screening at NYPL, as well as who would be appropriate discussion leaders after each of the films.
- Fotis helped conceive, and was instrumental in getting an audio tour of NYPL's Lunch Hour NYC exhibition off the ground.
- He spoke about art for and by people with low vision to a crowd of 100+ seniors at VISIONS Senior Center, the first senior center in the U.S. designed for adults with vision loss or blindness.
As a result of Fotis, I recently attended one of the Seeing Through Drawing classes at the Met. Luckily, we worked collaboratively, so my work was indistinguishable from that of my more-talented fellow students. If you have vision loss, I suggest you try such a session at the Met, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, or MOMA. And if you know someone with low vision, you just may be allowed to come as a companion (that's what I did).
If I had ever thought art was not a topic of great interest to the blind or those with low vision before meeting Fotis Flevotomos, I will never be so presumptuous again!