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A Waterfall of Descending Faces: How the Blind Experience Art Museums

05.16.12 Evan Fleischer

How paintings are seen by the blind varies from museum to museum. The Met has an Egyptian Touch Tour. MOMA has posted online a collection of visual descriptions for a slew of classics. At the British National Gallery, Miranda Baxter pointed me towards a paper she’d written that stressed ekphrasis, a rhetorical trope that is all about the verbal description of something visual, and which sports a sample ekphrasis of its own:

This painting, called Still Life with Drinking Horn, is oil paint on canvas. The entire painting is about as big as a coffee table and is in landscape format. A still life painting is an arrangement of inanimate objects…

We are looking at a picture of a bright red, cooked lobster on a pewter platter sitting precariously atop an exotic, expensive carpet, maybe from Turkey. The carpet is crumpled on top of a wooden table…

Starting from about five inches up from the bottom left-handed corner and one inch inwards to the left is the corner edge of the wooden table upon which all of the objects are the displayed…

It’s detailed. Though somewhat florid, it’s pretty specific. The last part kind of reads like a “How To” manual.

I visited the Museum of Fine Arts on a warm, cloudless day in Boston to meet with Annie Leist–a volunteer–to speak with her about all this and walk around the museum to approximate the experience myself. I got there a little bit before ten and went in through the employee entrance, a narrow slit of concrete set to the left of a wide and noisy loading dock. I waited by the security desk. Job applicants passed into the building and construction workers passed out of the building. One museum employee complimented the color of the plastic red flowers the security guard had placed on her desk.

Soon Annie collected me and the tunnels beneath the building disposed of us in the cafeteria.

I should also add that this was the day that Fenway Park threw open its doors to the general public, where crowds–and I was later one amongst them–could go wherever they wanted in the ballpark: the press box, the dugout, wherever. Some just sat in the stands and took in the day. I went to places in the ballpark I’d never been before, which included peering over the back wall in straight away center and taking in the city that lurked outside.

Legally blind, Annie is herself an abstract painter, a little under 5’7″, and hails from North Carolina. She writes on her website that “artmaking enables me to move through public places on my own terms…to present them in a new way that highlights their ambiguity and fleeting grace, elements so often overlooked in the daily rush of human routine.”

Over coffee, she spoke of the MFA’s kitchen sink approach. “Sometimes we bring in elements that involve, you know, reading relevant quotes. We have replicas of things you can’t touch; for example, fabrics that appear in particular paintings.”

A few minutes later, she took a set of folders out of her bag.

“There are a couple kinds of ways we can recreate–with a little bit of a tactile element–the composition of paintings. This is a Mary Cassatt painting, which is of two women having tea, and there’s sort of a mantelpiece with another painting in the background.”

She then produced a white piece of paper with three connected pieces of black felt.

“So there would be something like this, a tactile representation of just the very basic elements of the composition,” and the two women having tea became dark, lumpy shadows, an outline, and I ran my finger along the paper. Here was a way to convey the rhythm of a painting.

“You lose a lot of the detail,” Leist continued, “but at least you get a sense of the composition of the painting, the primary and important elements. For example, something like this, in the top right hand corner: it’s part of the background of the painting, so it wouldn’t necessarily be the most important element to include.”

She produced a second re-rendering of the Cassatt.

“This is a drawing made in something called a swell-form machine, where, essentially, someone has created a line drawing–probably this exact line drawing–photocopied onto a special paper that, when sent through this special heating machine, actually makes the ink rise up. You can see that there’s a whole lot of detail here. But you can’t really see what you’re doing when you’re just handed this. There’s no hierarchy, right? There’s no tactile layering. The lines are all at the same level of importance, so it’s a little bit harder to get an idea [of what’s going on]. If you have a painting that has a lot of detail and you’re with a guide, you can move your fingers over this way and you can feel the head, and you can have someone help guide you through the painting the way someone might guide you if you were touching a work of art.”

We made our way upstairs to look at a Chuck Close painting: Paul IV.

“There’s no right way to [talk about a painting], but you start with the basic information about the painting. Talk about its size. You don’t have talk about it like–and here she dropped her voice and affected an old, harrumphing man–“It’s approximately 8×8 feet.” Most of aren’t very good at that.

“But describing the size is actually very important. We do a lot of feedback tours. We get feedback from visitors who help the guides do a better verbal description, and one thing that inevitably gets forgotten often when we walk up to a piece of art with a visitor is to say, ‘This is a painting.’ We just start talking about it. It’s just, ‘Oh!’ One of our visitors who keeps giving us feedback said [of the habit], ‘That’s awesome, y’all, but what is it again?”

After we’d broken down ‘Paul IV’ in the ekphrasis style, I asked her if she ever described a painting by talking about the metaphor or the idea of it first–something I imagine would be paramount for truly abstract art, as was the style of a sculpture in front of us, which I called “a waterfall of descending faces”–then pivoted back to the literal details.

“It really depends on the situation. I think it’s still usually a good idea to start out with details, but you do very quickly–especially with something abstract–you tend to get into comparative words. I tend to go all onomatopoeia. ‘Sploosh! Whoosh!’ As long as you don’t forget to include–pretty early on–the basics, it’s hard not to start off with the metaphor. I love the ‘waterfall of descending faces.’ I’m going to use that.”

“It’s free,” I said.

“You just have to be careful that you’re not imposing your own opinions of the work.”

“Like you’re Constance Garnett,” I offered. “Like it’s a translation. Trying to convey the thing that it is while erasing yourself at the same time.”

“It is a translation! That’s exactly right.”

(Image: Martin Beek/FLICKR)