rt educators Kirsten Ervin and Tirzah DeCaria are a presence in the local disability community, known for their longtime dedication to creating high quality art-making opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, most notably through the Everyone an Artist studio and art market in Lawrenceville.
Their latest endeavor, Touch Art, is breaking new ground. From September 2013 through February 2014, specially trained teaching artists at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts will conduct a series of workshops for people who are blind or visually impaired.
A preview of the workshops, featuring tactile and three-dimensional art forms such as paper-making, jewelry, ceramics and fiber arts, will be held from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday at the center.
"Adults who are blind and visually impaired have historically lacked access to professional art resources and engaging workshops in the mainstream community," Ms. Ervin explained about the need for the workshops, which are co-sponsored by the Center for the Arts and funded by a grant from the Sprout Fund, whose mission is to support cultural innovation as a pathway to community engagement.
"The urge to create art doesn't vanish with the loss of sight," she added. However, art educators in community settings may not understand that people who are blind or visually impaired are interested in and capable of creating what we commonly call "visual" art. New Mexico sculptor Michael Naranjo, who lost his sight when he was hit by a grenade in Vietnam in 1968, is an example. He is world renowned, not only for the affecting power of his figures, but for inviting people to "see" them through touch.
To get the word out about the Touch Art workshops, Ms. Ervin and Ms. DeCaria reached out to networks within the blind community, such as Blind Outdoor Leisure Development and the Golden Triangle Council of the Blind. Those who expressed interest in the classes ranged from young adults who had lost their vision in recent years to older adults who grew up with blindness. Ms. Ervin and Ms. DeCaria listened with particular interest to their descriptions of previous art-making experiences, both positive and negative.
Ann Lapidus, 30, of Squirrel Hill, reported that she came up against the stereotype that blind people can't make art when she attempted to register for a pottery class on the South Side about a year ago. When she called in advance to explain her visual impairment, she was told that the instructor had no experience with blind students, that she wouldn't be able to make anything that looks good, and that she should instead take a class in something she can actually do, like music.
Undaunted, she eventually found a teacher at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. That teacher, Layne Wyse, also had no experience with blind students, but was willing to try. "He taught me all the techniques," Ms. Lapidus said. "He knew when it was appropriate to help and when to stand back."
"Now that I'm blind," said Ms. Lapidus, who lost her vision about five years ago, "I'm more inclined than ever to get into art. My mind has become so much more creative than it was before."
"I don't see a black world. I picture everything," she explained. "When I hold my pottery, I can picture the color and the pattern." She added that, contrary to the prediction of the unwilling teacher, "I have made beautiful objects. People who can see say they are gorgeous."
Bloomfield resident Gabe McMorland, 31, said that art has been a thread throughout his life and that he's excited about the workshops.
The 2001 University of Pittsburgh graduate and former co-host of Radio Free Pittsburgh on WPTS grew up sighted, but has lost most of his vision over the past 10 years due to a medical condition. He expects the classes to "open the door to participating in mainstream and community art."
"For a blind person to take a mainstream art class, you have to plan ahead," he explained. "It's hard to be spontaneous. There's not enough time to plan everything. Some things go by the wayside. But I think these classes will give me more of a chance to understand the particular art, a foundation. Then I can take the mainstream class."
Louise Chuha, 71, of Braddock, who knits, crochets and makes bobbin lace, has also registered for the workshops. The retired recreation and rehabilitation teacher for the former Pittsburgh Blind Association (now Blind and Vision Rehabilitation Services) said that teaching art to people who are blind requires a lot more talking: "You can't just hold up a sample and say this is how it will look."
Blind since birth, Ms. Chuha learned pottery making, weaving and other arts as a student at Perkins School for the Blind in Massachusetts. Traditionally, schools for blind children teach a wide range of tactile arts, and Ms. Chuha worries that blind students today are missing out on this exposure when they attend mainstream schools.
"They need to know what to do with their hands. They need to know how to examine something to discover what it looks like," she said.
Ms. Chuha is eager to make pottery again, something she hasn't done since her school days. Joyce Driben, of Greenfield, a retired social worker, and Michael Zaken, of Pleasant Hills, a retired computer programmer, also noted that their enthusiasm for the classes is rooted in memories of making art during their school days at Perkins (Ms. Driben) and Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children (Mr. Zaken).
Nathan Kottler, a 2013 graduate of Bethel Park High School who will major in computer science at Edinboro University this fall, is in the generation of blind students whose access to art has taken place in mainstream schools. Born with low vision due to a medical condition, he says he "lost a big chunk of [his] vision" in 10th grade. He took a few art classes in high school, and says he is particularly grateful to a teacher who had the patience to show him how to work in pottery and sculpture.
"The teacher makes the class," he said.
With that in mind, part of the Touch Art project is a January symposium for art educators and administrators who want to make their classes more accessible to blind students.
Claire Marcus, director of education for the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, said the organization is proud to be involved in Touch Art. "We're excited to think outside the box," she said. "We value being inclusive and want to share the love of the arts with as many people as possible."
For information about the Touch Art workshops, the preview event or the art educators symposium, call 412-576-6254 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Ongoing information about the project and artists in the local blind community can be found at touchartblog.wordpress.com.
Tina Calabro of Highland Park covers disability issues for the Post-Gazette. Contact her at email@example.com.