Please Touch the Art

By: Catie Anderson, curator of education on May 31st

National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder

The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) sits on a dramatic plateau amid the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in Boulder. The stone-colored cluster of buildings is reminiscent of the landscape, and while walking the path to the entrance, the sensation is that of approaching a mountain’s base.                                         

View of the Rockies from the NCAR lounge

The NCAR campus is the feat of renowned mid-century architect I.M. Pei and was built between 1961-67. A meeting room and lounge area with a panoramic view of the surrounding, snow-covered mountains were the gathering places for last week’s National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Tactile Art and Tactile Graphics Symposium, “Putting More STEAM in STEM.”

The road up to NCAR boasted sweeping views of the mountains.

The two-day symposium, May 19-20, comprised thirty participants, including representatives from NFB, the Colorado Center for the Blind, Lighthouse for the Blind, Envision, Inc., as well as artists, educators, and researchers with visual impairments or blindness and others. Curator of exhibitions Andy McGivern and I represented the Woodson Art Museum.  A major goal of the symposium was to foster a community of individuals, organizations, and advocates for tactile art in which resources and ideas could be shared going forward.

Woodson Art Museum visitors and Woodson Wanderings followers recall artist Ann Cunningham’s Forest Folklore tactile art exhibition and her two-week residency of public programs and hands-on art making experiences with hundreds of visiting students. Ann Cunningham not only facilitated the symposium but was the common thread between all of the participants who all had worked with Ann in various ways.

Participant Lindsay Yazzolino describes a tactile sculpture by Debbie Kent Stein as “hand catching” during a group discussion.

During the first day of the symposium, participants explored a tactile art exhibition, The Fine Sense of Art: A Multisensory Art Experience, which was installed in the lounge space. Sighted participants and individuals with low vision wore sleep shades (note the bright pink pair on the table in the image at right) to explore the artwork, encouraging us to focus on our sense of touch during this tactile art experience. Beside each artwork was a label printed in large font and in Braille and listening devices featuring audio descriptions.

One of the group’s earliest discussions focused on tactile art and how best to define it. We reached a consensus that this burgeoning field comprises artwork created with the intention that it be experienced through touch.

Conversations with artists and group analysis of the tactile art were followed by a public reception for the exhibition Friday evening. Saturday was dedicated to experiential learning via hands-on exercises, led by symposium participants and which highlighted a variety of learning scenarios, materials, challenges, and activities geared toward students with low vision or blindness. With sleep shades on, we worked in small groups, moving between different stations for twenty-minute exercises such as mapmaking with stylists on rubber mats, Braille picture making, wire sculpting, and exploring a children’s book containing tactile illustrations.

The symposium challenged Andy and me to consider ways the Woodson Art Museum can offer more multisensory art experiences for visitors, and I left with some additional resources to mine when developing the Museum’s Art Beyond Sight program. Share with us your ideas for hands-on art appreciation and stay tuned for updates on the Art Museum’s expanding efforts to serve individuals with low vision and blindness.

P.S. While there wasn’t much time to explore Boulder, Andy and I did manage to head out to a nearby trail for some birding early Saturday morning. The sun was bright and the sky had finally cleared up (following two days of snow and clouds), so it was a perfect setting to spot new species and enjoy familiar ones, too. Enjoy a few of Andy’s excellent photos from our brief birding excursion.

house wren

Bullocks oriole

spotted tohee

black-billed magpie

Visit the Woodson Art Museum soon to experience Passionate Pursuits: Birds in Our Landscapes to see what avian marvels you recognize and can identify from Midwest cities, rural landscapes, and backyard feeders.


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