Above: Installation of Insights at the Huntington Museum of Art. Image taken by Sadie Helmick.
If the visual arts are defined by the very nature of the “visual” aspect of their creation, what of those who see differently in order to create? Most would sooner believe without question that anyone who sees differently than they do cannot partake in the visual arts. Creating spaces through which these differences in sight can be more readily viewed and are more accessible to a larger population, a greater understanding of different ways of seeing in artists can be known.
Organizations like the American Printing House for the Blind help to educate not only those working in public spaces like museums and galleries, but also in schools where art is taught as well. If accessibility and newer forms of knowledge regarding the creative process of art can be taught to those with and without disabilities from a young age, those generations can build art institutions with inclusion as the starting point. InSights: Visionary Art by Artists who are Blind at the Huntington Museum of Art in Huntington, West Virginia showcased organizations like APH that help make art more accessible.
The show alternated a wall of paintings between cases containing works of jewelry, pottery, and basket-weaving. By showing a large variety of works with a grouping of artists ranging from grade school to adults, the show created an atmosphere of inclusion and accessibility. Here, art that is made from differing views and processes was accessed in a way that is not typical. The curators allowed the art to exist together, openly, for the audience to experience in their own way. While the use of canes and other objects associated often with visual disabilities are present, the lack of explicit knowledge that the artist has a disability allowed the art to not only speak for itself, but for the audience to come to their own conclusions as well.
In Nancy J. McClure’s Blind Side (2003), the artist depicts herself with her head slightly turned to the side, her hand resting upon her cheek. She gazes out pointedly, her eyes soft but attentive, as though noticing the onlooker as they walk up. Though large in scale, the portrait is focused on the face. Only a small portion of one shoulder and the barest glimpse of the woman’s hair are visible. McClure experiences the world through a condition that makes it difficult for her to see straight on and as a result she has better peripheral vision. With her difference in sight, McClure focuses on the angling of the head rather than the figure looking directly out. McClure zoomed in quite a bit on the face, aware focusing on such an area on such a large canvas would mean not having to use a magnifying glass in order to create the work. As I approached the painting, I was immediately struck with the feeling of being next to a close friend. The colors of the painting are muted, which gives a calming feeling to the work, and the way the figure gazes out is reminiscent of a person turning to find their friend approaching. Stylistically, it is realistic and detailed, and the difference in typical stiff portraiture and the ease this painting exudes was rather calming to me.
In View Master (2019), artist Kurt Weston experiments with varying mediums and materials. Weston was not initially visually impaired, but was born with a condition that slowly deteriorated his eyes as he aged. While he was once a photographer, over time his vision became too weak and he had to shift his profession. View Master is a work created on a scanner, combining the knowledge he had accumulated as a photographer to his work today. Weston laid his face down, both eyes over two thick lenses, and his hands on either side of a CD disc. The use of tinsel around the disc gives the work a modern, almost sci-fi quality to it where the tinsel comes to life and looks electric, this sense of power and domination upon those who gaze upon it. Initially, I was intrigued but kept myself back from approaching it too closely. Its presence is strong, with Weston’s visage large and commanding as his hands stretch out into the audience’s personal space. The work is dark, save for the artist’s face: red, commanding, and stern.
There is a deep need for education about accessibility within the museum and gallery spaces. Rather than focusing on the skill level or “talent” of the artist, what would it mean to view art as creations emerging from a deeper well of knowledge, histories and experiences?
Along the wall sits a small, tiered series of ceramic busts that represent the likeness of the young artists who created them. The portrait busts were made in 2019 at the New York Institute for Special Education, located in the Bronx. Self Portraits was created under the supervision of a teacher who initially formed the base for the portraits, but allowed the students free reign over the details of their artworks. While some students chose to represent themselves realistically, others took the creative freedom offered to them to showcase their own thoughts on themselves. Institutions such as the New York Institute for Special Education are key in creating spaces for others where it did not exist before. There was a true, innocent feeling to these works. Examining what young artists believe they look like and seeing the culmination of the teachings and freedom they were given was a delight to see.
At the very end of the exhibition sits perhaps the most inspiring work in the exhibit. Taking up almost the entirety of the wall sits White Cane Energy (2021). Made by artists at the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind, this mix media artwork includes a brilliant array of colors, rhinestones, and beads that shoot from the tip of a white cane that has been embellished and placed diagonally in the center of the canvas. The work is overflowing with energy, where flowing waves of vibrant paint seem to all culminate from the very tip of the walking stick and out into the canvas. A multicolored eye that rests upon the top of the cane in the opposite corner, where all of these flowing waves of color move up into like an omnipotent being that controls the cane.
A textured work meant to be touched, White Cane Energy shows the possibilities of collaborative art and the creative wishes of those who created it. This focus on texture resonates with those living with low vision that rely on the lettering of Braille and touch to navigate the world— the painting is “interactive,” which as a thought itself is different from most paintings.
The visual arts tend to be exclusionary in their practices, and for many it is easier to teach a craft to someone who can see the same way than to accommodate someone who cannot see as they do— and such a mindset in itself is discouraging. Rather than accommodate disabled artists into what is kept as a “visual” only craft, the arts need to become more inclusionary and accessible to a wider audience. “Fine Art,” as it stands, is a world of possibilities and unlocked potential due to the wall built between centuries old ableist practices and an age that wishes to defy these practices and make art more inclusionary.
InSights: Visionary Art by Artists who are Blind, a collaborative effort between HMOA and APH Louisville and APH Huntington, was on view at the Huntington Museum of Art from December 7th, 2021 until January 9th, 2022.
Alexandra Blair (she/her) is an art historian currently residing in Ashland, KY after receiving her master’s degree in Art History from the University of Louisville in 2021. If she isn’t exploring the Metaphysical works of Giorgio de Chirico, or delving into the more psychological aspects within art history through psychoanalysis, she’s exploring untapped realms of art within smaller communities in order to bring them to a wider audience.