The visual arts have historically presented challenges to individuals who are blind or have low vision, with barriers to participation in both art appreciation and art creation. Dr. Jeremy Johnson, an assistant professor of art education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, identified the need to remove these barriers for students who are blind or have low vision. He developed a series of workshops entitled Sensory: Please Touch the Art, which encourage participants who are blind or have low vision to interact with and create art in multisensory ways.
Johnson has a personal interest in the intersection of visual arts and accessibility: his wife self-identifies as visually impaired, and his career is in the arts. “We often had a hard time reconciling that,” explains Johnson, continuing, “She found museums inaccessible, and I did not have the vocabulary to address the situation. That was where the conversation for this project started.”
When the university art gallery director expressed interest in having Johnson and his wife, also an academic and a scholar of disability studies, create an accessible art exhibition, they jumped at the opportunity. “As we began talking about it, we decided an exhibition that is accessible to audiences who are visually impaired should be created by artists who are visually impaired. That was the starting point for the workshop series,” says Johnson.
Funding for the workshops came from a variety of sources, as Johnson found partners at the state and local level. He received a project grant from the Nebraska Arts Council, but needed to identify additional funders to match the grant amount. The Omaha Association for the Blind gave money to assist with transportation for the artists participating in the workshops, funds Johnson calls vital since transportation can often be a barrier for the blind and low vision community. Johnson’s department at the University of Nebraska at Omaha also offered support, as did Outlook Nebraska and WhyArts?, organizations he identifies as “essential community partners.”
The first four workshops, held in July and August of 2016, served between 12-18 participants who are blind or have low vision ranging in age from 14-78. Some students had no prior art education experience while one studied art at the college level, so the workshops were scaffolded such that students with past art instruction could use more advanced techniques or engage in more complex creations. Each six-hour-long workshop included three hours of general instruction and technique practice on a particular art medium. In the second half of each session, students could practice their new skills by working on projects of their own choosing with further one-on-one instruction from the teacher(s).
The four workshops covered four different artistic topics: expressing emotion, weaving, approximate perspective, and clay. Johnson cites the approximate perspective workshop as particularly challenging, saying, “Here we were trying to teach concepts that are difficult for a sighted person to understand—foreground, middleground, background, convergence—without talking about it in terms of vision. We came up with activities, with the assistance of tactile artist and educator Ann Cunningham, that relied on different senses, like teaching convergence in a long hallway and tapping rulers to create sound while the students used their fingers to point in the direction of the sound. One participant who is congenitally blind was really shocked at the realization that objects got larger and smaller in size in conjunction with their distance from him.”
Johnson emphasizes the importance of remaining flexible while teaching the workshops. “Participants got really interested in the approximate perspective lesson, for instance, and asking a question I was not prepared for about value, about shadow and light hitting a sphere. It was an important question, so I paused my planned lesson to address it,” he explains. He also adjusts materials and tools based on student feedback, both during the workshops themselves and when preparing for future sessions.
Johnson will soon lead the third round of the Sensory: Please Touch the Art workshops. The workshops will again conclude with an accessible exhibition of student work. Johnson has found another community partner in the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, which has asked to host the upcoming exhibition for six months. He is also working with a designer in Japan who combines Braille with traditional typeface to create placards for the exhibition, and he is incorporating virtual reality experiences into the exhibition so audiences can “feel” artworks that are not supposed to be touched.
While the participants in Johnson’s workshops are teens and adults, he believes the lessons and techniques for creating meaningful, accessible arts learning opportunities for students who are blind or have low vision transcend age and are well suited for the K-12 classroom as well. “These workshops improve my teaching practice, and I learn many things that I can share with the student teachers I instruct at the university,” says Johnson, adding, “Teachers and students both find greater success when they can create lessons that are accessible to a variety of individuals.”
Check out Dr. Jeremy Johnson’s four-part series on his workshop lessons: