Exploring Possibilities

Art and the Visually Impaired
Roehampton Institute

London May 95

My work at the Richard Attenborough Centre is as an artist-in-residence, but it also involves teaching, some arts administration, and my own work. The Richard Attenborough Centre is working with people with a variety of disabilities and we have a number of studio times as opposed to classes, where people with disabilities come into the studio and there are a number of teachers to work with them, the main person being Rachel Sullivan. The work they do generally is self-motivated and they are given the skills they need to complete the work they decide to embark on.

I think the key thing I have learned about the Richard Attenborough Centre since I moved there is that it is very much about art first and disability second, by which I mean that, the most important thing is to be able to express yourself. Therefore we are about art and about helping people to express themselves. Our role is not a therapeutic one, although clearly the arts have a therapeutic element.

I have chosen the theme `Exploring Possibilities.' I was asked to try and speak about it from a personal perspective, from my own development in art and how I came to be at the Richard Attenborough Centre. I was thinking that a great deal of it has been as a result of just exploring and I would not presume to say I have found a lot of the answers I started looking for when I became involved in art. I have not found those yet, I am still looking, but maybe I am a little closer.

My own visual impairment is the result of maternal rubella and it means that my eyes cannot focus correctly, a condition called nystagnius, and cataracts which were removed left some scarring. As far as I am aware, as regards my own visual memories, they have always been very similar and I think the only thing that has changed over the years is not the level of eyesight but the level and the way I perceive my environment as I have grown up and developed. Consequently, I understand things a lot better than I did when I was younger, but the actual eyesight has not improved, neither will it deteriorate, or so I have been told.

I was introduced to clay at the age of seven when I went to a school called St Joseph's in Dublin. There are two schools in Ireland for people with visual impairment, one for boys and one for girls. In St Joseph's we had clay classes, which were separate from the normal curriculum. There we were able to work for an hour and a half each week and, when I first started working with clay, we made things like thatched cottages and castles, boats and airplanes.

The one thing I remember is that I really enjoyed handling clay and this is something which has lasted. When I moved to secondary school, Pobalscoll Rosmini, I had a chance to do art in a broader context. I started painting, drawing and preparing for exams, and found that I was able to draw and paint well enough to get through the exams. I then decided to go to art college.

When I went to art college, the level of, let us call it, visual involvement became a lot more intensive than anything I had previously experienced.

In 1989 I applied to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin and got a place in craft design specialising in ceramics. I was advised at the time that work in ceramics was more suitable because of my visual impairment, and also because of my background of having worked with clay since the age of seven or eight. I skipped foundation year and went straight into second year craft design and within three months had failed my first assessment. I then spent the next year and a half either failing assessments or on probation. I got into third year on the condition that if I didn't pass my third year Christmas assessment, I would have to repeat that year. I failed it and so ended back in second year.

It was at that point I started to get desperate because I knew there were problems and everybody else, including my tutors, knew there were problems, but nobody knew how to solve them. Let us take one practical example. At that point I did not really understand how my eyes actually worked because, as I was growing up, I had been taught a certain set of rules, for instance the obvious one of perspective. This is something you learn in art history. It is something you learn when you are learning to draw, but in reality perspective for me could never have worked, but I did not know that, and nobody else knew it or, if they did, it was not passed on to me. The reason was that my vision is not bifocal so I see two images that do not converge. This has an immediate effect on drawing and affects the way one relates to things.

As these problems emerged at college, it occurred to me that my drawing difficulties would be relatively simple to deal with. I started to experiment more and I became very involved in charcoal drawing. I was able to work in tones rather than construct in line.

But previous to that experience, I did not really know that line was not the way I should draw. This brings home the fact which Marcus Weisen made earlier on, that everybody's eyesight is different and there are vast differences in visual impairment. Maybe two people will see the same, but they will generally not perceive in the same way. I worked very hard with my tutors to find my niche within the course structure. This was a very difficult period for me because it was not always obvious how I was going to find that niche. but it was also difficult for the tutors because they were concerned that my work should be judged equally with everyone else's. I think, with hindsight, that it brought about a much stronger and more justifiable type of work which would probably not have developed if that pressure had not been there.

Finding suitable ways of adapting my drawing was quite easy because I was exposed to certain ways of drawing and was able to adapt them. Furthermore, I didn't have to talk too much about my visual impairment and the problems it caused. But in my ceramic work, the situation was totally different. As I said earlier on, the one thing I loved about clay was that I could touch it, and it is a beautiful material to handle, but generally the pieces I made never related to my drawings! When your preparatory work does not relate to what you end up with, people begin to ask what you are trying to achieve, where is the critical process?

That was actually one of the reasons I failed some of my assessments. I think the other thing was, as I said, that my earlier drawing when I went to college was quite linear. But my reaction to clay was essentially tactile and based on volumes and masses. Therefore the two processes - drawing and making -were not different stages of the same project, but were actually different ways of thinking about it. So the first thing for me was to start working on a bigger scale, to start working more chunkily and much more loosely, to actually start thinking with clay initially and then draw and make. Working in charcoal was very useful at that point, because it lent itself very well to the softness I experienced in the clay.

I think neither the school system, nor the art college system lent itself to my developing a tactile perception because they did not have the experience and I didn't know what I wanted either. So I started experimenting with touch. I was working with murals at the time and I decided to get a blindfold and start making marks on these large murals with my hands. This mark making was loosely based on massage techniques.

The result was the work which formed my degree show. This was a mural, twenty-two feet by four and a half feet, which weighed about half a ton and was constructed outside the college because there was not enough space. This was a very difficult project, very time-consuming, because the amount of clay required was huge for one person to work with.

Some of my early charcoal drawings are worked from photographs. This is another aspect of visual impairment which many people don't know about. Although 1 have great difficulty recognising people and at a glance would not, unless they spoke to me, given a few hours with a photograph and the right materials, I can produce a portrait as good as anyone else. I still might not recognise the person in it if 1 met them, but it would be a very good representation.

Another thing worth pointing out is that, although I have difficulty in recognising people, my colour sense is very strong and I think the reason for that has a lot to do with the fact that if you cannot see the finer details, the next thing you move to is colour, and I could probably remember in a week's time what my colleagues beside me are wearing now, but would not recognise their faces. That is quite interesting because people often think that visually impaired people's colour sense must be weaker as well. In some cases it is very fine. But in my case, colour sense is strong in a very personal way and not in any design sense.

I should like to show some illustrations of myself working on this very large mural. Ridges were created where the clay overlapped and it had to be smoothed out. To get across to the centre part, I had a stretch of about two feet and, before it was fired, it was actually twenty-four feet by five feet. So to get into that centre section I had to use pieces of board, which I put on bricks and I lay across them. This was a wonderful way to work because I was quite literally lying on the boards and working with my hands, and as a sensual experience, that was really special. Sometimes it was almost trance- like because I got so close to the materials.

When the mural was finished, it was cut into sections and transported a hundred miles to Dublin where it was fired. Each firing took four to four and a half days. Then it was cemented on to boards and the gaps between were filled with grout.

The next consideration, as part of my degree show, which was very much a launching pad for a student's career in art, was whether I was actually going to talk about my visual impairment in my press-releases, and would that make me a disabled artist, a disabled person first and an artist second? But I decided that I had been given so much encouragement and gained so much freedom, that it was worth the risk anyway.

The other thing was that a lot of the people around me who had never touched, or thought about touching, pieces of work before, said this work was very valid and I decided that this could benefit a wider audience, including other visually impaired people. So I decided to call my exhibition 'In Touch'.

During that year I also produced my thesis, which was called, 'Babies Teach Their Mothers What They Need to Know". This investigated 'Art by and for Registered Blind People". I am very honored to be speaking in the same place as Marcus Weisen, because when I was in college in Dublin, Marcus was the very first contact I had in the arts field who was talking about touch and was very good at putting me in contact with people and sending me information. I looked a lot at what was going on in the United Kingdom, in particular at the Royal College for the Blind in Hereford and also what was going on in Japan in regard to touch-art. After graduating, I decided to organise a trip to Japan. That was during 1994 and I was also involved in a number of exhibitions in Dublin, namely 'Celebrating Difference', which toured all over Ireland. The idea was to celebrate difference as advantage, not disadvantage.

In Japan, I was greatly encouraged by the excellent work with blind and visually impaired people. Workshops at Azabu Art Museum in Tokyo were organised by Yohei Nishimura who wrote a fascinating book, already mentioned ("Let's Make What We've Never Seen'). These were attended by visually impaired people, some partially sighted, some totally blind, the partially sighted and a number of fully sighted people wearing blindfolds. It was very interesting to see the level of ability they had acquired with touch and also the scale that they were working with. They were working with massive pieces of clay in many cases.

The success of touch art in Japan stems less from the considerable support given to art teachers working with visually impaired and blind people by the education system, and more from the fact that the artists/art teachers themselves are very accomplished people and quite often come from an exceptionally rich ceramic tradition, and that is a very important factor. The other thing is that Japanese art has a different base to European art and I think the whole culture allows for different things, which is not the case with our own art teaching.

As Artist-in-Residence at the Richard Attenborough Centre, I have been involved in a number of teaching projects. One specific example was working with a group of visually impaired students at Babington Community College, Leicester. The support teachers there were keen that I should come and work on touch with their students. However, after about two weeks we realised it just would not work because the students had limited art experience. The one thing they wanted to know was how to build with clay. It was as simple as that. And from Christmas until Easter, that was the thing that came out again and again. They wanted more and more experience with building and they got better and better at it, obviously.

There were several children in this group, aged 12 to 14. One girl, who is partially sighted, comes from Bangladesh and has a very rich tradition. Her family have collected many drawings, her mother sews and the one thing she loves doing with clay is drawing flowers. Some of these drawings were much better than her eyesight would lead you to believe they could possibly be.

The most important thing to remember when you are working with visually impaired people is that everybody is different. Rarely are two eye conditions the same, and even if the level of eyesight is similar, the background and experience of each person is unique.

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