Pro­gram is well-suited to ‘Art of the Senses’ ex­hibit

The Buffalo News - - CON­TIN­UED FROM THE COVER -

The last thing she re­mem­bers see­ing was a flash of light­ning through her dorm room win­dow at the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia in the spring of 1962.

Her de­scrip­tions of art­work at the Al­bright-Knox Art Gallery are pieced to­gether from tour guides’ de­scrip­tions, her own mem­o­ries and the oc­ca­sional priv­i­lege of slip­ping on a pair of white gloves and run­ning her fin­gers across Pi­casso’s sig­na­ture on a sculp­ture.

She shared her im­pres­sions of the art dur­ing a re­cent guided tour of the Al­bright-Knox for the vis­ually im­paired.

“I’ve never seen a color. But I as­so­ciate it with flow­ers that I love, or feel­ings,” said Laz­zaro, 64.

Her sight was dam­aged when she was an in­fant.

“My mother’s fa­vorite color was turquoise, so when I think about turquoise, I think of my mother’s voice and I think of just how much I loved her,” she said. “I don’t have any visual sense, but I feel emo­tional depth with color that I can’t de­scribe.”

A hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence

Since 2008, the Al­brightKnox has hosted guided “mul­ti­sen­sory” tours and group art ac­tiv­i­ties for the blind and vis­ually im­paired. Its cur­rent tour pro­gram, led by the gallery’s Ac­ces­si­bil­ity and Com­mu­nity Pro­grams Co­or­di­na­tor Karen Du­val, runs on the first Sat­ur­day and se­cond Wed­nes­day of ev­ery month.

The pro­gram mixes de­scrip­tions of works on view with op­por­tu­ni­ties for vis­ually im­paired to touch cer­tain art­works and par­tic­i­pate in an art­mak­ing ac­tiv­ity based on one or more of the works they’ve ex­pe­ri­enced. And it is par­tic­u­larly well-suited to the gallery’s cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion “Art of the Senses,” which fea­tures in­stal­la­tions all view­ers are able to touch, hear, smell and even taste.

Three vis­ually im­paired women and one ser­vice dog named Omni met Du­val in the lobby of the gallery Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon. Af­ter a brief in­tro­duc­tion, Du­val led the group into the gallery’s bright, glass­walled au­di­to­rium, where they sat in the front row and lis­tened to a med­i­ta­tive 2012 sound in­stal­la­tion by the Scot­tish artist Su­san Phillipz.

Ti­tled “The River Cy­cle,” Phillipz’s calm­ing sound in­stal­la­tion em­anates from six speak­ers po­si­tioned on the east and west sides of the au­di­to­rium. It’s based on a char­ac­ter from James Joyce’s book “Fin­negans Wake” and is meant to de­scribe the jour­ney of a leaf along the River Lif­fey in Dublin and to re­flect the nat­u­ral sur­round­ings of Delaware Park.

“It seems like that’s the life of that leaf,” said tour mem­ber Kathy Lyons, 72, ac­com­pa­nied by her ser­vice dog, Omni, af­ter con­tem­plat­ing the mean­ing of the piece’s plink­ing pi­ano notes. “It hits the wa­ter and twists and turns.”

Later, the group hud­dled around a square pile of brightly col­ored can­dies – an un­ti­tled work by the late artist Felix Gon­za­lez-Tor­res – as Du­val ex­plained to their sur­prise that vis­i­tors are al­lowed to pick up a piece of candy and eat it.

Af­ter lis­ten­ing to Du­val’s de­scrip­tion of gallery staff re­plen­ish­ing the candy sup­ply to main­tain the shape of a per­fect square, tour mem­ber Au­drey Divita got an idea.

“I just have this feel­ing I’d love to mess it all up,” Divita, 86, said with smirk. “Like a kid.”

For Divita, who has some pe­riph­eral vi­sion but no cen­tral vi­sion, the pro­gram pro­vides in­sight into art­works that most gallery vis­i­tors don’t get.

“It’s a won­der­ful pro­gram, and opens up vis­tas to you when you can’t see and you feel shut off,” said Divita, who was ac­com­pa­nied by her sighted friend Paul Kennedy. “We put on white gloves and felt a Pi­casso piece, and could feel where he carved his name. Prob­a­bly if I was sighted and I came to see that, I wouldn’t even no­tice it.”

Dur­ing the tour, the group also took in Ge­orge Se­gal’s pop­u­lar in­stal­la­tion known as “Cin­ema.” The bright piece in­cor­po­rates an il­lu­mi­nated movie the­ater mar­quee and a plas­ter sculp­ture of a man paused in the act of re­mov­ing the fi­nal let­ter from the sign.

To give the group a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the ma­te­ri­als in­volved in the piece, Du­val passed around a plas­ter cast of a hu­man face made from a sim­i­lar ma­te­rial to Se­gal’s plas­ter sculp­ture, as well as a wooden block let­ter “R” re­sem­bling the one on the mar­quee.

Up­stairs, in the gallery’s stately 1905 build­ing, Divita, Laz­zaro and Lyons rev­eled in a large-scale piece by Gon­za­lez-Tor­res: A tow­er­ing cur­tain of hang­ing beads vis­i­tors must part to en­ter the “Art of the Senses” ex­hi­bi­tion.

Lyons, who could barely make out the twin­kling of the beads, said it re­minded her of Ni­a­gara Falls.

And for Laz­zaro, who mar­veled at the rare abil­ity to move through a piece of art and lis­ten to the sound it makes, the piece evoked some­thing close to pure joy.

“Oh, my God, I love this,” she ex­claimed as she let the beads fall over her face on her way from one side of the cur­tain to the other and back again.

In a nearby room, the group made its way through an in­stal­la­tion by Ernesto Neto made of macrame-style net­ting with ring­ing bells and seed­pods at­tached. Laz­zaro, again draw­ing on per­sonal mem­o­ries, said the sound of the piece re­minded her of the bells she used to tie to her chil­dren’s shoes so she could track their move­ments around the house.

A cre­ative out­let

Af­ter the tour, the group made its way through one of the gallery’s claus­tro­pho­bic cor­ri­dors to a sub­ter­ranean ac­tiv­ity room. There, Du­val laid out strips of plas­ter cloth next to a clear plas­tic tub of wa­ter. She passed out four foam heads to the par­tic­i­pants, with in­struc­tions to wet the plas­ter and ap­ply it to the foam faces – much like the tech­nique Se­gal used to cre­ate “Cin­ema.”

As they worked on their projects, the par­tic­i­pants group chat­ted about ex­pe­ri­ences with art in the gallery’s col­lec­tion and their strug­gles with los­ing their sight.

“I like the com­bi­na­tion of see­ing art, get­ting to know who’s out there, and mak­ing art,” said Lyons, who skipped the plas­ter strips and in­stead ap­plied col­or­ful pieces of yarn to dec­o­rate her foam head. “Be­cause the cre­ative needs an out­let.”

Du­val, who joined the gallery in April, said she tries not to be heavy-handed with her de­scrip­tions of works so par­tic­i­pants can use their other senses, mem­o­ries and imag­i­na­tions to fill in the gaps.

“A lot of peo­ple think, ‘Why would a visual art mu­seum be a draw for any­one who’s blind or has low vi­sion?’ ” Du­val said. “But it is be­cause you’re ac­cess­ing all sorts of dif­fer­ent top­ics and sub­jects. It trig­gers things in peo­ple. Peo­ple make emo­tional re­sponses or they draw on other ar­eas of their ex­pe­ri­ence.”

For Lyons, whose sight has be­come pro­gres­sively worse, the tours con­nect her to a time when she could tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween dif­fer­ent col­ors.

For Divita, it pro­vides a chance to en­gage in­tel­lec­tu­ally with art­work in ways oth­ers aren’t able to.

And for Laz­zaro, it of­fers a space to in­dulge a cre­ative im­pulse that has al­ways been look­ing for a way out.

“It’s been a source of joy and heal­ing for me. It’s very af­firm­ing to have a new win­dow for your in­tel­lect that opens,” Laz­zaro said. “I feel so up­lifted when I come here. And when I leave, it’s like I’ve got­ten a deep com­pres­sion mas­sage for the soul.”

Derek Gee/Buf­falo News

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