Most artwork is visual. Most galleries also have a strict “do not touch” policy. It makes it difficult for people with little or no vision to experience art. We have to rely on someone else to describe the artwork to us.
The problem is that viewing art is like wine tasting. Everyone experiences it differently. Your experience is typically different to someone else’s experience. People often find it difficult to explain why. It is also difficult for someone else to describe a picture to you without interpreting it. For example, they might tell you that an abstract artwork is a picture of a tree. If you could see it, you might think it actually looked like something else entirely. The meaning of the artwork would also differ between people.
A tactile picture
I wondered whether making pictures tactile would enable people with vision impairment to better experience artwork by themselves. To find out, I made a tactile picture that people could feel using their hands. I then got people’s feedback.
I went to a painting workshop at the recent Awakenings Festival in Horsham. Local artist Nicola Clark assisted participants to create Picasso-style faces. A volunteer also assisted me with cutting and gluing. I produced my piece using different textured paper, material and cardboard. It was a split and distorted man’s face. The man was wearing a hat. He also had a moustache. I used contrasting colours and textures to make the features more distinct.
Interpreting the picture
I got nine people with a vision impairment from Blind Citizens Australia to sample my artwork. Two people were totally blind. I wanted everyone to interpret the picture individually. I did not tell them anything about the artwork except which was the right way up. I later revealed that it was a distorted face and invited people to look at it again.
The tactile picture generated a lot of interest and discussion within the group. Feeling the picture allowed participant Meredith to confirm what she had seen with her limited vision. Meanwhile, another participant Karen thought that it was a cartoon face like Mr Potato Head.
Deciding for themselves
Some people were unsure what the picture was. I wasn’t offended by this. I thought it was more important that they could decide what it was for themselves.
I was interested in what people thought about the different facial features in the picture. There weren’t any right or wrong answers. I was just interested in what people thought. Everyone thought the hat was hair. Karen also thought the split below the mouth was a cigarette.
I think the tactile picture was a success. I had created a more distinct contrast that people with vision impairment could differentiate easier than a traditional collage.
Tactile art could become a means of access. Tactile versions of famous paintings would assist us to understand certain popular culture references. There is also scope for tactile pictures to become an art form. It would open up another art medium for artists with low vision.
Art is a creative way of expressing ideas, beliefs and emotions. It stirs our thoughts and feelings. Art encourages us to react to it. Whether you love it, hate it or don’t understand it, art should be for everyone to experience for themselves.