Introduction to Artists at Work

My own visual impairment has had significant influence on the directions I have taken in my life. While a student at the National College of Art and Design, Dublin (1989-93), where I studied Craft Design, majoring in ceramics, I began to examine seriously the impact my visual impairment was making on my ceramics and drawing. In fact, these enquiries took up the last year and a half of my degree studies. The result was a large wall mural that used massage techniques, using the hands as mark-making tools. Through this and subsequent works I have had the rare opportunity to travel and debate my ideas and share my work with similar people who have made their careers in the visual arts and design. My desire to embark on a debate has resulted in this publication and exhibition.

The aim from the outset was to bring together a range of opinions from practising artists and designers about the way that visual impairment has or has not affected their work. It was never my agenda to compile a series of biographies, as 1 believe very strongly that this would distract from the real substance of the debate, which is about how people think about their work. My primary interest has never been in finding role models which would encourage visually impaired people to pursue a career in the creative media or encourage providers of art education (including galleries and museums) to strive for total inclusion, as I believe these arguments are already well made. Rather, my overriding aim has been to enable a small group of visually impaired artists and designers to explore their ways of thinking and working within an arts world which is essentially visual. Unfortunately, this debate has been rare in the past. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, numbers in real terms are still small, and it is only relatively recently that visually impaired people were educationally enabled to achieve high academic standards in art and design. Secondly, many who have been successful in the past have chosen not to come out and speak openly about the consequences of their visual impairment on their work, for fear of losing their clients or not being taken seriously. Thirdly, historically, the prevailing attitude has been that for visually impaired people, art, and particularly craft, could only be therapeutic and recreational activities. In such a culture there was little need for this sort of discussion.

The group I chose to interview were from a variety of art and design disciplines. All the artists' contributions were compiled through taped discussion-type interviews. However, 1 did not use a standard questionnaire format, as 1 did not want to set a narrowing and limiting focus. I was more interested in exploring the broad theme of artists and designers with a visual impairment who work within the context of the visual arts. At this point I must thank all the contributors for extending such warm hospitality when I visited them in the Spring and Summer of 1996. After these interviews were transcribed, I and my colleagues Alan Caine and Eleanor Hartley edited the scripts. The purpose of this edit was to turn the spoken word into an easily manageable and understandable text. These versions were then returned to the artists for further consideration. As far as was possible we have tried to maintain the spirit and freshness of the original interviews, with the co-operation of the artists, of course. Again, I would like to stress the fact that I encouraged contributors to veer away from a chronology of their careers or detailed descriptions of individual pieces of work.

If the term 'visual impairment' is used in its broadest sense it can include blind as well as partially sighted people. To me, as I believe to the majority of the artists, visual impairment is just a description of physical fact. It is not a label that we would like to see used to identify us as an artistic group or a separate culture. Neither would it be true to categorise us as 'disabled artists'. In fact, I think it would be fair to say that few of us can connect with any of the current movements or campaigns; this is important, in that it helps to illustrate the debate we are actually engaged in here. In this publication we are exploring how partial sight has impacted on the way we as practising artists relate to our environment.

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