The painting itself was visually striking, contrasting a bright yellow star against a dark sky. But the artist, a student in Perkins School for the Blind’s Deafblind Program named Emilia, brought the piece to life by giving it distinct physical features. To separate foreground from background, she used soft velcro and serrated cardboard to make it accessible, tactilely, to those without vision.
“Isn’t it soft?” a teacher asked, out loud and in sign language, standing with a student whose hands were grazing the piece. “It’s really cool.”
On display in the Grousbeck Center last week, the piece, titled “Shooting Star,” was hardly the only work of accessible art in the room. As part of the Deafblind Program’s annual art show, it was one of several tactile paintings, three-dimensional statuettes and interactive collages being exhibited, all showcasing different ways people with visual impairment might enjoy a medium most commonly associated with sight.
“A lot of our students will end up making their projects 3D or with that tactile element because that’s how they’re feeling it and experiencing their own projects,” said Sara Espanet, a teacher in the Deafblind Program who organizes the event. “Then there are other students who are cognizant of that and say, ‘Maybe I’ll add this so my friend can feel it.’”
All around the room, there were different examples of this kind of tactile art, from a fully-furnished diagram of a student’s “dream apartment,” to an abstract work made with jewelry and loose screws. Critical art materials, both accessible and general – including canvases, gemstones, paint brushes, crayons, adapted brushes for students who struggle with grip and more – were provided by Blick Art, who partnered with Perkins to make the show a success.
“We presented our students with those tactile materials and let them decide how they wanted to use them,” added Espanet.
While there were plenty of traditionally visual works on display as well – including large collages made jointly by classrooms – the art show isn’t just about the product. It’s “about the process,” said Espanet, adding the act of making art, despite its sometimes visual nature, is critical to educating children with visual impairment or deafblindness.
“For some, going into an art class might be about the sensory experience of feeling paint on their hands, manipulating the paint brush or maybe using modeling clays for the first time,” she said. “It’s a great way for them to express themselves, but it’s also such a great sensory experience.”
Now in its eighth year, the show – which was imbued with an avant garde ambiance by a student piano player and juice-filled champagne flutes – also gave families the opportunity to come in and get a glimpse of the creative work their children are doing.
“The art show is a fun, unique event for our entire community,” said Espanet. “Importantly, it’s also an opportunity for students to showcase their abilities and what they’re able to accomplish.”