Works of art reimagined

OCAD Uni­ver­sity stu­dents re­work a se­lec­tion of AGO paint­ings into hands-on art the vis­ually im­paired can ap­pre­ci­ate


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 envi- sion­ing 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 mul­ti­sen­sory 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 mul­ti­sen­sory 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 mul­ti­sen­sory 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 stu- dents 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 Ama­

“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 mul­ti­sen­sory 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 mul­ti­sen­sory 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 mul­ti­sen­sory 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 mul­ti­sen­sory 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.”



From left, Na­dine Ad­dada, Jing Poli and Carisa An­toriksa with their in­ter­pre­ta­tion of James Tis­sot's La De­moi­selle de Ma­g­a­sin.

Tyson Moll and Shan­non Kupfer with their mul­ti­sen­sory project and Otto Dix's Por­trait of Dr. Hein­rich Stadel­mann.

Nikki To, left, and Grace Men­dez’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Jean-Simeon Chardin's Jar of Apri­cots in­cludes dried apri­cots for tast­ing.

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