Peter Coppin remembers the discussion with a visually impaired student that helped him understand how much can be misunderstood when a person has to depend on words to understand what someone else can see.
They were talking about Italy and the student knew that Italy is shaped like a boot. But when Coppin described it as a boot with a high heel like the Three Muskateers would wear, the student laughed out loud. He had been envisioning Italy as an entirely different kind of boot shape, and the idea of Italy as a Muskateer boot was comical to him.
It’s these chasms in understanding that Coppin and the Art Gallery of Ontario are trying to bridge with a program that brings multi-sensory projects, based on works of visual art, to AGO museum tours for people in the blind and low vision community.
While in the past museums have relied heavily on audio recordings and guides to bridge that gap, new practices are being brought on board, including multi-sensory aids designed by graduate students at OCAD University.
“Visuals are dominant in our culture. If you are a part of society and you don’t have access to visual items, then you don’t have access to a lot off stuff about the culture that people who have vision have access to,” says Coppin, associate professor of the inclusive design graduate program and director of the perceptual artifacts lab at OCAD University.
In Coppin’s graduate class, students select a work of art at the AGO to interpret for people living with vision loss.
This year — the second year of the program — the works included four paintings: Tom Thomson’s The West Wind, Otto Dix’s Portrait of Dr. Heinrich Stadelmann; La Demoiselle de magasin by James Tissot and Jar of Apricots by Jean-Siméon Chardin.
In a way, it’s about getting back to the roots of what museums used to be, said Melissa Smith, co-ordinator of the gallery guide, adult education officer and access to art programs for the AGO.
Early museums began as private collections, typically belonging to the wealthy, who would share art and artifacts they had purchased or collected on their travels. They were displayed in “wonder rooms.” People were allowed to touch the items as part of the experience.
The AGO already offers multi-sensory tours for people living with vision loss, which include some works that can be touched — including the museum’s large Rodin sculptures — under supervision, but providing 3-D support for works of visual arts offers the possibility of evoking more than just the sense of touch.
For months, Coppin’s students grappled with the idea of how to render the terrifying look on Dr. Stadelmann’s face into a tactile experience and how to communicate the cold of the water in The West Wind.
“We were totally drawn to this portrait; the eerie atmosphere,” said student Shannon Kupfer, speaking of the Dix portrait. “I was dying to interpret it.”
Dix layered paint on the doctor’s eyes — they appear to bulge. He seems haunted. His hands are in fists by his sides. Kupfer and her partner, Tyson Moll, wanted viewers to feel that tension, and also feel the deep wrinkles in his face.
They made a 3-D replica of the doctor’s head in polymer clay that felt cold and a bit yielding, but still firm to the touch. The eyes bulge like they do in the painting. They sewed hair onto his head in little batches, to mimic the strokes of the paintbrush in the painting. They made the body boxy and rigid, to communicate the physical tension in the painting. They gave him a rigid collar, backed by cardboard. His fists were made of polymer clay coated in silicone.
They also made it out of products that were easy to care for — the clothes are fastened with Velcro to make it easier for curators to remove them and wash them if necessary.
They recorded an audio component — a fluent German speaker reading a passage from one of Dr. Stadelmann’s writings, concerning avant-garde art in relation to what was then considered psychiatric wisdom. They included the hissing noise that used to accompany recordings played on records.
“It’s not just engaging for the low-sight community, it’s engaging for everyone. It’s such a cool way to get kids — or anyone — more engaged with art,” Kupfer said.
The problem of communicating the coldness of the water in Tom Thomson’s piece was solved more simply, with a bag of blue slime. To convey the feeling of wind, the students invested in a $20 miniature fan from Amazon.com.
“When you stand in front of this painting you can feel the strong wind because of the shape of the tree and the waves on the lake,” said student Norbert Zhao.
John Rae, who lost his eyesight in his 20s and is now blind, has been on the AGO multi-sensory tours and experienced the works made by this year’s OCAD students. While he liked the Otto Dix sculpture, some things didn’t communicate as planned. For example, without knowing anything about the painting, when Rae touched the sculpture, he thought the doctor was a boxer wearing gloves, because of the way the hands felt.
“That comes from me as a sports fan,” said Rae, a retired public servant and a board member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians.
Rae liked the multi-sensory adaptation of Jar of Apricots, by students Nikkie To and Grace Mendez. The painting is a still life that includes a jar of apricots, a glass of wine, bread and a cup of tea. Their model included dried apricots for tasting, jarred scents including a cork soaked in wine and apricot jam with added artificial apricot scent; 3-D printed objects including a tea cup and wine glass to handle, background music from the period and others sounds — touching the wine glass triggered the sound of a liquid being poured.
While Rae believes the multi-sensory aids provide another tool, he thinks museums in general need to consider making more objects available for handling by the blind and vision impaired. He cited as an example ancient pottery — while a museum may have perfect examples on display, it may also have imperfect examples in storage. What would be the harm, asks Rae, in making those available to people with limited eyesight, especially since the tours happen infrequently, involve about six to 12 items, and small numbers of people?
“One can learn a fair amount from the expertise that the people who run these tours bring to the table, but there is no substitute for being able to touch,” Rae said.
The challenge at the AGO, Smith said, is that in an art gallery the works tend to be flat and one-of-a-kind.
“Our conservators and curators do their utmost to ensure the objects, like sculptures, which make the most interesting objects to touch, are cared for and exhibited to support this program,” Smith said.
Ian White, president of a local Toronto chapter of the Canadian Council of the Blind called the CCB Toronto Visionaries, said that while AGO tour leaders excel at describing art in a way that triggers the imagination, the multi-sensory tours are evocative.
“It starts a conversation about the piece, about the artist, about the history,” White said.
“It really allows people to engage with works that are part of our collective culture.”
Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF