Artist WENDY DAWS has a long-held mission to make art accessible to the sight impaired.
She describes the journey as Kent Association for the Blind’s Medway Blind Art Group open their new exhibition ‘Through Our Eyes’
We are all comrades in a shadow world, relying on others to be our eyes. Brian Podger, 78, KAB Medway Art Group participant, from his poem ‘Sightless in a field of conflict’
At the University of Brighton I became fascinated by how people see art – not in a critical sense but literally. How, if you’re sight impaired, do you enjoy and engage with art and galleries? This fascination led to my dissertation ‘The Value of Touch and Museum Approaches to the Visually Impaired Visitor’ and when I returned to Medway, I met the Kent Association for the Blind and setup the KAB Medway Blind Art Group.
That was nine years ago and the group is going from strength to strength. Our latest exhibition, ‘Through Our Eyes’ is the culmination of a partnership between the Royal Engineers Museum and the KAB Medway Art Group. I run the group on a voluntary basis and it is attended by people from the Medway Towns whose sight is impaired as well as a number of incredibly supportive volunteers and artists. The current age range of the group is 42 years to 97 years.
Rebecca Gazey was the Community Engagement and Learning Officer at the RE Museum and she asked if we would like to explore and respond to the museum collections. Rebecca had heard about us through the Tactile Bronze Project we had completed with Rochester Cathedral. She and I met in September 2013 for a chat that led to our eight week residency earlier this year and our upcoming exhibition, ‘Through Our Eyes’.
We were very warmly welcomed to the museum and looked after throughout by the whole museum team. Deputy Curator James Scott acquainted us with the vast historical collections, after which our responses and ideas started to form.
As a group we continually bounce ideas off each other; I make suggestions and push everyone to try different ways of making. The resulting collection is a mixture of painting, sculpture, mixed media and poetry. Barbara, who is 92 with Macular Degeneration, has created ‘Destruction’ a dozen clear sticky tape casts of a shell casing, each named with a battlefield from the 1914-1918 war. I couldn’t get hold of a complete shell casing so in stepped my father-in-law, who amongst many things is also a wood turner. Tony turned the exact shape of a shell casing for Barbara to use as a pattern to create her casts.
It’s a challenge for me to create work at the same time as leading the group. I usually take casts of everyone’s fingers and they feature among plaster Mills Bomb fragments and terracotta barbed wire. One member of the group who always adds to our inspiration in a unique way is Brian Prodger, 78 (Extreme Myopia & Posterior Vitreous Degeneration). Brian writes poetry at home based on ideas that the group has explored during the day. Our terracotta barbed wire was made by us all following Brian’s lead.
I like to bring in other artistic expertise and for a number of weeks we worked with the brilliant Peter Reeds. Peter has a great way of drawing adventure out of people. His mantra was “banish the brush” and he got everyone’s hands in the paint.
“When my vision was damaged I thought that life had ended. The group inspired me to try and that world opened up for me again.” Helen, 42, Diabetic Retinopathy
Something I am conscious of is that although I’m really interested in (some might say obsessed with) how museums approach their visually impaired visitors, I’m an artist and not a sight aware expert. So if we’re going to embark on an adventure with a museum, it is important to get everyone involved.
At the RE Museum, KAB’s excellent Medway Team, led by June Dellar, took the museum staff through their ‘Sighted Guided Training’. This includes wearing simulated spectacles to demonstrate a variety of eye conditions and learning the techniques of guiding someone: it’s quite daunting being blindfolded and totally placing your trust in someone else to guide you. It was fantastic that everyone from the Front of House team to Museum Director Richard Dunn took part. Excuse the poor pun but it was an eye opener for all and a great way to raise awareness.
You can view our exhibition ‘Through Our Eyes’ at the Royal Engineers Museum from 28 April to 13 July 2015. The group will also be at the Museum on 23 May for a ‘Tactile Detectives’ day.
For more information on the KAB and Medway Art Group visit kabmedwayartgroup.wordpress.com
Wendy Daws is a Medway based artist, born and bred in Medway: she disappeared in 1997 and was drawn back by the Medway magnet in 2004. She has a passion for people and making art accessible, in its broadest sense, for all.
Photos: Gary Weston and Wendy Daws (barbed wire)