Instead of simply looking — as they are normally limited to doing — visitors in a gallery last week rubbed, poked, ripped, squeezed and held the art.
The exhibit, which will be on display through Dec. 5, features paintings, installations, ceramics and mixed media artwork, all of which visitors are encouraged to touch.
“It’s making artwork accessible to a bigger group of people,” said Nathan Abels, a painting professor at Arapahoe Community College. “It’s expanding concepts of art — why couldn’t art be touched, right?”
Incorporating senses beyond sight
The first iteration of the “Shared Visions” exhibit went on display in 2014, when Abels and his colleague at the Colorado Center for the Blind, Ann Cunningham, decided to collaborate.
The Colorado Center for the Blind is a training center that offers programs to teach blind individuals skills and self-confidence to work toward independence, opportunity and success.
Several students, instructors and alumni from the center created art for the exhibit, as did students from Arapahoe Community College’s painting and ceramics classes.
Since the first show, Abels said it has been incredible to see how his students over the years have gotten creative in thinking about art from a standpoint that’s not solely based on sight.
“Students have started to incorporate, I think, more variations on sensory experience,” he said. “Students have been trying to incorporate even more senses — thinking about smell, thinking about sound, about movement.”
One piece of artwork features small pillows with poetry printed on one side. On the other side, the poems are embroidered in braille — and when squeezed, the pillows play a recording of the poem in the artist’s voice.
Some pieces call for audience interaction, like one that consists of strips of paper hanging from the wall for visitors to rip wherever they want, creating a seemingly random collection of hanging colors and textures.
And some pieces seem to provide a fuller experience to blind audiences than to individuals who see.
On one canvas, for example, different textured paints correspond to different colors, identified through a braille and written English key.
To a visitor who uses sight instead of touch, the paints are all white.
The gift of the gallery
Chris Parsons, a staff member for the center’s senior program, brought a group of seniors to visit the exhibit a few days after its opening. She said it is a fantastic opportunity for blind people to experience art in a gallery.
In a museum, blind people are rarely allowed to use their sense of touch.
“As a blind person, if you can even get up close enough to something because there’s not ropes, you still can’t touch it,” she said. “There’s glass, or the person who’s with you tells you it says, ‘Don’t touch.’”
Several of the program’s seniors lost their vision later in life, so Parsons said visiting museums is something many of them miss.
“For them, it really is a way for them to be able to get back to something that they may have really enjoyed doing,” she said of the exhibit. “And they thought it was something that there was really no hope for them of being able to really experience that anymore.”
Broomfield resident Susie Zimmer, who is blind, traveled to Littleton to see the exhibit with her friend, Judy Murphy. She said she was very happy they made the trip.
“I like the different textiles,” she said, adding that her favorite piece of art was a butterfly made from different textured fabrics.
Murphy said she enjoyed the messages that came through the artwork, and that through touching the art, people can glean deep meanings.
In order to make the artwork as accessible as possible, each piece has a small label explaining the artist’s inspiration, both in written English and in braille.
In addition to the creativity it inspires in his students, Abels said another goal of the show is to help students at Arapahoe Community College and the Colorado Center for the Blind connect with each other.
“It’s connecting with our community,” he said. “(The center) is pretty much right across the street. So, we’re getting to know them and connect with our neighbors.”
The exhibit is located in the Colorado Gallery of the Arts on Arapahoe Community College’s Littleton Campus.
It is free and open to the public Monday-Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
The gallery will be closed Nov. 20 through Nov. 26 for Thanksgiving break.