A note at the entrance to the gallery at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired informs visitors that they should "feel free to touch the art." This is important when it comes to work by artists, ages 10-18, whose eyesight isn't an essential tool, if they use it at all. While much of the work is tactile, some, such as Ahmed's A Day at the Beach With Donald, Hillary, Obama, Dory, and Nemo With Two Aliens and Some Octopi Next to a Volcano During an Earthquake, are less so. Ahmed's is a flat drawing, a higgledy-piggledy of shapes and colors swarming over white paper. I don't need to touch it in order to enjoy the artist's carnival of lines and swirls, or the hysteria of his title.
The show boasts other 2-D works. Matt's Portrait of Emily Grace depicts a blue-eyed woman, blond hair sweeping across her face. Sunset Reflections by Mikkah is a landscape featuring a broad waterfall under dark hills and a red sky. The students' teacher, Gretchen Bettes, points out a large drawing by one student who has some shadowy vision in her eyes. Despite her limited vision and spatial sense, the artist has managed, with the aid of a projector, to make a very convincing representation of Beyoncé.
However, touch is a significant part of most of the work. Julie's Key Chimes is an assortment of hanging keys tied to a bar with red string. The piece is visually compelling, but doesn't really come alive until you run your hand over it, feeling the cold metal and soft thread and hearing the ringing of the "chimes." Graham's Cuckoo Clock is a multicolored box decorated with feathers and a clock face. The box opens to reveal five googly-eyed figures, like puppets, also adorned with feathers. The visual/tactile is accompanied by a recording: the artist and friends hooting and cuckooing.
Collectively, the students' work reflects the enlightening, even moving, things taking place at TSBVI. Some students come into the studio prepared to be frustrated. They may not see art as an option for people like themselves. Bettes, who has been with TSBVI for 23 years, knows how to reach out to those students. Through trial and error, she helps bring the projects they imagine to fruition. In the process, students develop a firmer sense of themselves.
One of the revelations of the program is that the struggles these visually impaired artists face are essentially the same as those faced by any artist. Questions about concept, color, space, and structure have to be asked and then answered. A crucial difference is that artists who speak from the experience of the visually impaired are rare, which makes their perspective a precious one. Misael's Get Lost (in art), a black-and-white abstract in cardboard, is darkly humorous, its arcs, waves, and grids shaping a statement that is both wry and sincere. According to Bettes, Misael has expressed some skepticism about art's role in his life. I hope with time that he comes to recognize his own talent. One perceives through his work that Misael knows things. As his audience, as well as a fellow human, I need to know them, too. We all do.
“I Can’t Hear You, It’s Too Dark in Here” shows during WEST Fri., May 12, 7-9pm; and Sat., May 13, 11am-6pm & 7-9pm, at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired Fine Arts Bldg., #602, 1100 W. 45th. For more information, visit www.westaustinstudiotour.org.