For several years leading up to the pandemic, the Nasher Sculpture Center has worked with Envision Dallas (formerly Dallas Lighthouse for the Blind) to offer regular “Sculptural Insights” events for adults with blindness or low vision. Envision employees along with friends and family would join us for an afternoon of discussion, activities, and refreshment. Our team worked to translate the visually rich environment of the museum into a multisensory experience through the use of raised-line drawings, 3D models, music, and even scent. The relationships we formed with the participants in these programs led us to expand what we offered to all visitors with vision impairment: braille copies of museum brochures and label text, 3D prints of selected works in the Nasher collection, and verbal descriptions of artworks available as audio recordings on our smartphone app.
The verbal descriptions have led to an especially meaningful collaboration. Our Education team learned how to write descriptions that help listeners mentally visualize an artwork, but we wanted our written words to move listeners with a voice that resonates. To our great fortune, Blake Lindsay, one of the associates at Envision Dallas is also a seasoned radio announcer. Blake, who has been blind since birth, records our verbal descriptions and makes the artwork come alive.
Moving to Virtual
With our museum doors closed for months, we wanted to stay connected to our program partners, but faced the challenge of creating an engaging multisensory experience in the limited audio-visual format of a virtual workshop. We threw a lot of ideas at the wall before landing on our solution: a specially designed art kit with artwork-specific materials and a tactile organization system. Each activity was placed in a separate clear bag with a raised sticker near the zipper seal, so participants could either feel the contents of the bag or the sticker to identify it. Once the kits were complete with several artwork activities and snacks (a favorite aspect of the pre-pandemic workshops), they were stuffed into a paper grocery bag and marked with the name of the participant, so they could be easily distributed at Envision and carried home.
So far, we have held two virtual events with Envision during the pandemic, each of which has tried to capture the lively discussion and sense of play that were part of the in-person programs. One event started with Braille Bingo, but instead of numbers in each square, there were words printed in braille that related to the evening’s discussion. Winners received gift cards to lunch spots near Envision’s offices.
With Bingo consisting of a game on a grid, what could follow in similar form for a first tour stop? Sol LeWitt’s Modular Cube/Base! To translate this artwork into a tactile object, we included a 3D Rubik’s Cube and a square plastic needlepoint canvas for the 2D base. While participants handled the two components, we read the verbal description and discussed questions that LeWitt explored in his practice. What makes art… art? Is it the idea or the physical making of the work?
Judy Chicago’s Rearrangeable Rainbow Blocks was another featured sculpture with a geometric component, but the color and arrangement of the forms became the center of attention. How do you interpret color for those who cannot see? Warm colors of yellow, red, and orange, and cool colors of violet, blue and green were made sensory through smell and taste. A handful of Starburst™ squares and Jolly Rancher™ rectangles of assorted colors and flavors were placed in individual bags so they could be enjoyed as snacks after they were used to arrange their own installations on their computer table.
In the most recent virtual event, movement in sculpture and the influence of music was explored through the work of artists Melvin Edwards and Maren Hassinger. Beginning the session with the poetic piano playing of one of Envision’s employees, we segued from classical and pop favorites to the jazz which influenced aspects of Edwards’s sculpture, Five to the Bar. Participants handled miniature models of Five to the Bar made with cardboard half-moons and craft wire and were invited to rock them while they listened to a verbal description of the artwork. Hassinger’s Field had participants placing cut wire of various lengths into floral foam to mimic the artist’s process.
The response from our learners was extremely positive. Despite the limitations of the virtual format, we were able to capture the energy of previous programs. And while we missed being in our museum, being off-site allowed us to use materials that would not be permitted in the galleries. It also created some special moments for everyone, like being able to showcase the musical talents of one of our participants.
Hidden in the unforeseen challenges of the pandemic have been opportunities to reinvent the way we teach and discover new ways to connect with our audience. Co-creating with our partners has given us a chance to highlight their voices and interests. Going virtual has allowed people with health concerns or transportation challenges to still participate. Granted there are constraints with meeting virtually – phone access, internet strength and user fatigue, but the positive outcomes have helped us to grow as educators.
Programming and resources serving visitors with visual impairments is made possible by the generous support of The Rosewood Foundation.