Artistic vision doesn't require vision

Visual arts at Perkins School for the Blind have played an important role for generations of students

A student from the 1960s works on clay model figures

Carol, a student in Perkins’ Deafblind Program, models clay figures based on poses learned in dancing class circa 1964. Arts and crafts were an integral part of the curriculum in the Deafblind Program during the 1960s, and still are today.

April 21, 2016

As visitors walk through the halls at Perkins School for the Blind they are often drawn to the sounds of the chorus practicing in the chapel or a student playing piano in Dwight Hall. They may also be struck by the sight and texture of the brightly colored paintings and collages lining the walls of the Hilton and Howe buildings. The latter houses Perkins’ Secondary Program, while the former has been the home of the Deafblind Program since the 1970s.

At first glance, art seems like a very visual medium. In fact, Perkins art teachers are frequently asked how they teach visual arts to students who are blind, deafblind or visually impaired.

One way is by giving students access to art. As early as 1889, Perkins students like Helen Keller were invited to take “touch tours” at what was then the Boston Art Museum, today the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). Keller was able to touch priceless works of antiquity (and in some cases, plaster casts of original art) including a Roman-era statue of Venus.

Keller wrote of her visit: “General Loring (superintendent of the museum) himself came in, and showed me some of the most beautiful statues, among which were the Venus of Medici, the Minerva of the Parthenon. Venus entranced me. She looked as if she had just risen from the foam of the sea, and her loveliness was like a strain of heavenly music.”

Through the years, Perkins students have also been given hands-on opportunities to create their own artwork. The fact is that most art easily moves beyond the visual. Working with clay, making textural collages and incorporating scented materials are just a few of the many ways that teachers have made art accessible to students.

During the 1960s, Perkins’ Industrial Arts curriculum for Lower School students included finger painting, mosaic making and sponge painting, among other art experiences. Today, Perkins students of all ages and abilities take part in art-making activities – from painting with fruits and vegetables to creating award-winning mixed-media pieces.

“Art instills in the students a sense of self-esteem, and they enjoy being able to work with their hands to create something,” explained art teacher Rocky Tomascoff. “In here, we’re working on many of the same goals, skills and objectives that they are in other classes; it’s just with different materials.”

Since 2002 Perkins has partnered with Boston’s MFA to organize regular “Feeling for Form” tours for Perkins students. In 2011, artist Dale Chihuly, who is blind in one eye, gave Perkins students a personal touch tour of his “Through the Looking Glass” exhibition at the MFA.

And in 2014, students from Perkins Lower School travelled to the MFA for a special touch tour similar to the one Helen Keller enjoyed over 115 years ago. Wearing thin latex gloves, students were able to literally touch history – running their hands over an ornately carved burial sarcophagus and a Roman bust of a bald man.

Regardless of whether a student is blind, deafblind or visually impaired, visual arts play a critical role in building confidence, self-esteem and learning meaningful concepts and skills.

In addition to developing cognitive and physical skills, the process of creating art pushes students’ limits, stretches their imaginations and gives them a chance for self-expression and another means of communication. It’s no wonder then that art is everywhere at Perkins.

For more information about the history of Perkins School for the Blind, sign up for the Perkins Archives’ newsletter. Read more about the art program at Perkins in Perspectives.

Read more about: Arts & Music, Perkins History