In 2013 my husband and I visited ‘Monet’s Garden’ when it was on exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria [NGV], Melbourne. As both an art enthusiast and artist I couldn’t wait to attend my first major exhibition. Finally I would have the chance to get up close and personal with a selection of work by one of the masters of Impressionism, which is my favourite style of painting.
The question was, given my low vision, just exactly how close would I be able to get to the paintings so that I could experience and appreciate them for myself? Like all other galleries, the NGV has a strict ‘look but don’t touch’ policy, therefore I figured that running my finger along the brushstrokes that made up the surf in “Rough Weather at Etretat” or tracing the outline of the English Houses of Parliament through the fog was probably not going to be permitted. No doubt, that if I did employ a tactile means of exploring Monet’s masterpieces I would be nabbed by security and tossed out on to St Kilda Road quicker than I could say “Giverny!”
Instead, I chose to stick to visual means of exploration, using my monocular to acquire an overall view of each work, and then standing as close as I dared to focus on particular details. Whenever I took a closer look I felt awkward, being acutely aware that my ‘big scone’ was obscuring the view of other patrons. Also, I didn’t want to appear to contravene the unspoken rule of not getting too near to the hallowed exhibit. This still wasn’t close enough; I needed to get much closer to clearly see the fine detail. There was only one solution, to purchase a book on the exhibition from the gift shop then with the aid of my CCTV [digital magnifier] I could paw over each painting to my heart’s content, soaking up every magnificent element.
As we walked around the exhibition my husband very patiently read out the information which accompanied each painting. We hired the audio tour which, in addition to providing extra details on Monet and his paintings, also gave my husband’s voice a well earnt break. Unfortunately, the audio unit’s interface was a touch screen which didn’t offer voice output or screen magnification, thus requiring my husband to select the next track for me.
These constraints notwithstanding, we thoroughly enjoyed our day wandering through Monet’s Garden. Despite a major case of eye strain and mental exhaustion I was captivated by Monet’s paintings and in awe to be in the presence of this highly renowned work. But surely, there has to be an easier way to enjoy an exhibition?
In order to experience visual artworks many people who are blind or have low vision are reliant upon the descriptive capabilities of people who are fully sighted. There are two issues which arise from descriptions provided by a third party. Firstly, it is difficult if not impossible for another person to describe a picture without placing their own interpretation upon it. For example, they may say, “it’s a picture of a gnarled old tree.” But, if the person with low vision could see it for themselves, they might disagree and think that it looked like something completely different. It is even more difficult to describe an abstract piece without providing an interpretation.
Secondly, more often than not the describer includes their appraisal of the piece, whether they- hate, like, think it’s well executed, a poor effort, weird, boring, nice, interesting or impressive. Thus distorting the work’s description and tainting the experience of the artwork for the person who is blind or has low vision.
Art galleries should be for everyone, not just for patrons with full sight. There are a number of strategies that galleries and touring exhibitions can implement to enhance the experience of patrons who are blind or have low vision, in turn increasing their patronage. These strategies come under two categories, visiting exhibitions and accessing gallery spaces.
Ensure that each gallery’s website is fully accessible to screenreader and screen magnification users. This allows all patrons to easily access exhibition details regardless of their web surfing skills or sight level. Upgrade gallery owned audio devices with easy to use voice output and screen magnification programmes to enable patrons to operate such devices independently. Make exhibition audio tours available as downloadable Smart phone apps, thus enabling patrons to take advantage of an audio tour via the built in accessibility features on their phone. Such as the audio tour app which was available for the Martin Scorsese exhibition at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, 2016. Provide exhibit descriptions in alternate formats such as Braille or large print.
Include exhibit descriptions as part of an audio tour’s material. Galleries should develop and host specialised tours for people who are blind or have low vision, such as the tours run for the Fringe furniture Exhibition at the Abbotsford Convent Gallery, Melbourne.
Good physical access is much more than having tactile ground indicators at the front door and Braille signs on the toilets. Both of these strategies are of little use if a person who is blind or has low vision is unable to easily locate the front door or the toilets. On the whole galleries are large cavernous spaces that offer few if any audible or tactile cues as to the location of the front door, reception desk/counter, toilets, gift shop and café. Let alone providing a means for someone who is blind or has low vision to safely and easily navigate the main exhibition and collection on their own.
A Canadian organisation, Blind Square is making public spaces accessible to people who are blind or have low vision by the provision of a customised navigation system that user’s access via an app on their smart phones. Blind Square offers far more detailed information than a GPS. The app not only provides information for locating a particular building or outdoor point such as a bus stop, but also for a range of points of interest within a venue like toilets [including which one is which], front counter, seating area etc. Strategically placed navigation beacons transmit customised information to the smart phone, adjusting instructions when the person changes direction.
The Blind Square beacons operate in a number of public venues across Canada and also in Wellington New Zealand. In Australia Blind Square is available for many outdoor locations. The installation of Blind Square navigation beacons in galleries would not only significantly improve the physical access to these spaces, but make them far more welcoming for visitors who are blind or have low vision.
Following my encounter with Monet’s paintings I started to ponder how I could more effectively replicate visual elements such as shade, perspective, texture and movement in my own arts practice. I am a tactile artist, creating pictures which feel as good as they look. I chose this art form because I wanted to produce artwork that people who are blind or have low vision can interact with on their own terms, not someone else’s.
I use a plethora of different textured fabrics, paper, cardboard, wool, beads, rhinestones, foam, paint and other materials to make tactile greeting cards and larger tactile pictures. Over time I have developed a range of techniques via experimentation with various mediums and artistic styles.
Some design ideas are relatively easy to execute, whereas more complex concepts require a greater level of development. In my ‘Ideas Book’ I draw up various design concepts and certain aspects of a design or picture, to assist me to determine if a particular concept will work, or whether it is possible to achieve a desired effect. I draw an enlarged version of particular aspects of a picture to ensure that the proportions and details are correct. I play with potential colours by colouring in my designs and pictures. Then I decide which mediums and techniques will best work for a given design.
Since 2011 I have predominantly worked with two dimensional images, hence reproducing the above mentioned elements in my work would definitely provide a challenge considering my sight level and the size of my works. The crucial first step for creating an intended effect is, to sketch out certain design aspects and experiment with different methods to achieve a desired element such as shade.
The second step is, to decide which materials and techniques will be the most effective for producing the picture.
A good test of my ability to create shade and perspective came when I made a sympathy card featuring a beach scene with a grassy foreshore trailing off into the distance. For a starting point I found a suitable picture of a cliff to study. Using the picture for reference, I sketched the scene a number of times until I was happy with how it looked, ensuring that I’d gotten the cliff’s shape and dimensions right. After much consideration I picked materials that would create shade and perspective in both a visual and tactile manner. The grassy foreshore was constructed by placing matt black cardboard for the shadows underneath a green felt cliff with cut-outs for the eroded areas.
Composing a tropical underwater scene on hessian [a new medium] provided me with the opportunity to further develop my use of texture and movement. I generated texture within the scene through the use of different textured wools in various ply’s [thicknesses], and with different shaped beads. I used softer, thinner wool for the sand than I did for the coral. To create contrasting textures between the fish’s bodies and tails I used tapestry wool, plush wool and 8ply acrylic yarn. The seaweed was formed from feathers wool which is fine and smooth. I chose shiny round beads for the air bubbles and fish’s eyes. To complete the array of textures I sewed beads in the shape of starfish, cone and fan shells on to the sand.
There were two ways that I incorporated movement into my underwater piece. One, when making the seaweed I stitched the feathers wool into a wavy pattern, occasionally twisting the wool to reflect the current moving through the seaweed. The seaweed moves when a finger is run over it. Two, extending along a diagonal line from each fish’s mouth I sewed spherical beads for the air bubbles.
My husband and I look forward to visiting the Van Gogh exhibition in 2017 at the NGV. I can’t wait to view the works of my favourite Impressionist, as well as discovering which elements and techniques I can utilise in my next collection of work. Before my next visit I would like to hope that the NGV had commenced improving its accessibility, but this seems unlikely given the short timeframe. I strongly urge all galleries to not just commit to but to actively improve the gallery experience for visitors who are blind or have low vision. For when they do so they are not only improving the gallery experience for this group of visitors, but also for all of their visitors.
Art is a creative means of expressing ideas, values, beliefs and emotions. It is a vehicle for challenging the status quo and raising issues of concern. It provokes a reaction from its audience by stirring their hearts and intellects. If art is there for everyone to encounter and appreciate then why are people who are blind or have low vision excluded?
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