See­ing art a dif­fer­ent way

Bechtler Mu­seum pro­gram lets vis­i­tors ap­pre­ci­ate art, even when they can’t see it

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Baseball - BY LAWRENCE TOPPMAN Arts Cor­re­spon­dent

The sign reads “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH.” Next to it, Lisa Newth plants her hands on a weav­ing by Span­ish sur­re­al­ist Joan Miró.

Granted, the Bechtler fam­ily used “Span­ish Dancer” for a while as a rug and even spilled red wine on it once. But this vis­i­tor to the Bechtler Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and two fel­low tour mem­bers run their mitts all over it. They have al­ready rubbed the in­ter­lock­ing brass parts of Miguel Ber­ro­cal’s “Romeo and Juliet” and will shortly stroke the rough edges of Al­berto Gi­a­cometti’s “Seated Woman,” all while grin­ning mem­bers of the Bechtler staff stand by.

Laven­der-col­ored la­tex gloves, the kind worn by cu­ra­tors when han­dling six-fig­ure works of art, pro­tect the pieces on these tours, which in­clude at most half a dozen peo­ple. And how else could par­tici- pants in the Bechtler’s Low to No Vi­sion Pro­gram ap­pre­ci­ate its col­lec­tion?

For al­most seven years, vis­i­tors with se­verely di­min­ished sight have learned about art on tac­tile tours and made it in small classes, mostly through the Bechtler’s con­nec­tion with Metrolina As­so­ci­a­tion for the Blind.

The mu­seum has pur­sued un­der­served au­di­ences in jails, de­ten­tion cen­ters and schools. It has brought art into the lives of peo­ple with phys­i­cal dis- abil­i­ties, learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and early stages of de­men­tia. It hopes to start a pro­gram serv­ing vet­er­ans with prob­lems in the next fis­cal year. (More of that in a bit.) So Low to No Vi­sion fits per­fectly into this ex­pan­sion­ist phi­los­o­phy.

And the par­tic­i­pants are hav­ing a ball.

They’re wrin­kling their fore­heads at the feel of rough cor­ru­gated cir­cles in Hoss Ha­ley’s “Rip­ples,” hewn from the side of a sal­vaged steel tank. They’re lay­ing sen­si­tive fingers along the ir­reg­u­lar stone sur­faces of Katha­rina Sal­len­bach’s “Re­lief 1961.” (“It’s like some­one was re­ally bad at lay­ing bricks and couldn’t get them even,” says prag­matic tour-taker Todd Hil­bert.)

They gather de­tails that sighted vis­i­tors may miss, han­dling not only the works but pedestals on which they sit. A tour leader dis­man­tles “Romeo and Juliet,” though only partly: A Bechtler cu­ra­tor needed three hours to as- sem­ble the 16 pieces and had to watch a video in re­verse to do it. As Newth, Hil­bert and Os­car Lee han­dle the in­nards of this weighty lit­tle ab­stract sculp­ture, the guide ex­plains that Ber­ro­cal made the un­seen in­ner parts anatom­i­cally cor­rect.

“The ques­tion is, how can peo­ple ex­pe­ri­ence beauty in dif­fer­ent ways,” says Newth, who had eye surg­eries af­ter ju­ve­nile di­a­betes and now mostly per­ceives con­trasts in shapes or light and dark. “I’ve looked at this art with glasses, with­out glasses and by touch­ing it, and I’ve no­ticed dif­fer­ent things each time.

“This lib­er­ates your imag­i­na­tion. Chil­dren ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery­thing by touch, and we lose that as we get older. But we’re (more per­cep­tive) when we don’t rely on one sense all the time.”

That’s been true out­side The Bechtler since it opened in Jan­uary 2010. Passers-by

han­dle the mir­rored legs of Niki de Saint-Phalle’s “Fire­bird,” pos­ing for pho­tos along­side one of Char­lotte’s most iconic sculp­tures. The can­tilevered front of the Mario Botta-de­signed build­ing in­vites lean­ers and touch­ers.

The Low to No Vi­sion Pro­gram brings that nat­u­ral ten­dency in­side. Those thin pur­ple gloves let peo­ple record de­tailed in­for­ma­tion: A slightly el­e­vated line in the fab­ric of “Span­ish Dancer” is as ap­par­ent to the fin­ger­tip as the eye, though col­ors and di­men­sions need to be de­scribed aloud. Vis­i­tors fol­low just one rule: Once the gloves go on, they can­not touch their hair or faces, be­cause they’ll trans­fer oil or sweat to the art.

Classes, on the other hand, seem to have no rules. Those take at most four par­tic­i­pants, so im­paired art­mak­ers can get one-on-one in­for­ma­tion from teach­ers or vol­un­teers about col­ors, sizes and shapes.

“In­di­vid­u­als with low to no vi­sion can be­come iso­lated, es­pe­cially if they have no fam­ily or no one to drive them around,” says Mykell Gates Jamil, the Bechtler’s as­so­ciate direc­tor of ed­u­ca­tion. “We’re giv­ing them a space not only to make art but to so­cial­ize and have a good time.” (The Bechtler also pro­vides ma­te­ri­als for these classes.)

If you’d dropped in on one of the three-part winter ses­sions – os­ten­si­bly set up to make wind chimes, though one par­tic­i­pant worked on a clay ver­sion of Noah’s Ark – you’d have seen what Jamil meant. Creators’ fingers and tongues worked si­mul­ta­ne­ously for two hours, as though im­pair­ment were in­con­ve­nient but hardly in­sur­mount­able.

A brain tu­mor took most of Mered­ith Stump’s sight at 11; she now per­ceives only light. Yet as she made foxes for her ark, she re­lied on her mem­ory of col­ors and shapes. “You for­get some things as you get older, like your mama’s face,” she ex­plains. “But col­ors? Never. You can tell me some­thing is turquoise with red polka dots, and I’ll know just what you’re talk­ing about.”

She and the other two women in that class have made art much of their lives, study­ing at Char­lotte Art League and other venues.

Re­tired so­cial worker Mary Lee O’Daniel, who has a re­ces­sive form of re­tini­tis pig­men­tosa and also per­ceives only light, de­signed her wed­ding gown and her daugh­ter’s prom gown. “I re­ally liked spread­ing gesso on a can­vas, us­ing pa­per, sand, seashells, even but­tons,” she says. “But I never know what to do with the things I make. For me, the rea­son to be here is more the process of mak­ing them.”

Class­mate Kasimu Pate was draw­ing, paint­ing and mak­ing jew­elry be­fore patho­logic my­opia took most of her vi­sion. She has hung out at the DIY in­cu­ba­tor Area 15, con­trib­uted to shows at the Ur­ban Min­istry Cen­ter and Char­lotte Art League and proudly in­forms you Lenny Kravitz wore one of her T-shirts – tie-dyed hot pink and black – on­stage at a lo­cal per­for­mance.

“I have de­fined my­self as an artist for a long time,” says Pate, who also writes po­etry. “I do it both for the plea­sure of mak­ing things and to have an end prod­uct to show. Art doesn’t mean the same thing to ev­ery­body. The most im­por­tant ques­tion for me is, ‘When you see (what I’ve made), what does it mean to you?’ “

The Bechtler has taught peo­ple to ask that ques­tion in dif­fer­ent ways for nearly a decade. It com­bats re­cidi­vism by train­ing in­car­cer­ated peo­ple to ex­press feel­ings through art; it helps peo­ple with de­men­tia and their care­givers trig­ger heal­ing mem­o­ries through art.

It also un­locks cre­ativ­ity in stu­dents who may never have stud­ied art in schools or come up­town for any rea­son, let alone to visit a mu­seum. When they do, the Bechtler pays for a sub­sti­tute teacher and hires a bus. Ev­ery kid in a par­tic­i­pat­ing school pro­gram gets a free BOS (Bechtler Out­reach Scholar) mem­ber­ship good for them­selves and their fam­i­lies.

Jamil says the mu­seum, which al­ready ad­mits vet- er­ans for free, has been ap­proached by the Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion to cre­ate a pro­gram where vets learn to con­vey what’s on their minds by study­ing or mak­ing art. That de­pends partly on money, of course — the Bechtler re­lies on grants and in­ter­nal bud­get­ing to cover out­reach ef­forts — and staff avail­abil­ity.

The mu­seum served 1,929 school and com­mu­nity mem­bers in fis­cal year 2017-18, and at a low cost. A re­cent fund-rais­ing email says $1,000 pays for a Jail Arts Ini­tia­tive res­i­dency, $500 for a school class­room pro­ject and teach­ing artist, $100 for a tour by some­one in the Low to No Vi­sion or Mu­seum Mem­o­ries pro­grams, and $25 for art sup­plies for a par­tic­i­pant in any com­mu­nity ef­fort.

“This mu­seum has al­ways had a large fo­cus on out­reach, and we hope to ex­pand that as much as we can,” says Jamil. “We want to share the joy with ev­ery­body.”

JOSHUA KOMER For The Char­lotte Ob­server

Todd Hil­bert, right, runs his hand across a piece of art­work guided by Brie Uzzell, a tour guide for the Low to No Vi­sion Pro­gram at the Bechtler Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art. The tours al­low vis­i­tors with se­verely di­min­ished sight to ex­pe­ri­ence art­work and learn about each piece.

JOSHUA KOMER For The Char­lotte Ob­server

Todd Hil­bert touches the sculp­ture “Romeo and Juliet” by Miguel Ber­ro­cal dur­ing a Low to No Vi­sion tour at the Bechtler Mu­seum.

JOSHUA KOMER For The Char­lotte Ob­server

Thin pur­ple gloves let peo­ple record de­tailed in­for­ma­tion dur­ing the Low to No Vi­sion Pro­gram.

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