Sunday, May 31, 2009

Sounds give vision to visually impaired artist

Ashley Spurgeon is one of several blind participants who collaborated with Rich Curtis on an award-winning painting.

The work, "Sight Unseen," brought together blind residents across the state who, under Curtis' direction, painted white canvases with thick black paint that becomes raised when dry.

The neophyte artists produced their work in response to five pieces of music that ranged from Blue Man percussion to upright bass solos to Tuvan throat singing.

The resultant work of 20 canvases was meant to be not only seen, but felt by the blind and sighted.

For the work, Curtis won the Helen Keller International Prize, named after the deaf and blind Tuscumbia woman who was born in 1880 and became a world-recognized advocate for the rights of people with disabilities.

The competition, held in Glasgow, Scotland, attracted 200 artists worldwide. In abstentia, Curtis accepted the award along with a $2,224.17 prize and trophy.

The entire collection, including more than 50 drawings, will be on exhibit at the Tennessee Valley Museum of Art in Florence on June 22-28 during the Helen Keller Festival.

Four judges unanimously chose Curtis' work.

"It was vibrant and interesting, worked on different levels for sighted and non-sighted audiences and had an oomph about it we all loved," stated Pauline McLean, a competition judge. "With a lovely twist, the winner turned out to be from Helen Keller's home town."

Helen Keller, with her teacher and companion Anne Sullivan, visited Scotland in 1933 as part of a worldwide awareness tour. The visit helped to plant the seed for Sense Scotland, an advocacy and charitable organization started by parents of deaf/blind children. The group sponsored the competition.

During Keller's Glasgow visit, she established a trust fund for other deaf/blind people, a trust taken over by Sense Scotland in 1989 that transformed into an international essay competition, then a biennial art competition open to professional and amateur artists.

The project started about a year ago when Curtis contacted the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind. His original idea was to shadow someone visually impaired to navigate through their day.

"That would be interesting," Spurgeon said.

Because of feasibility problems, Curtis changed the project into how sound plays a role in how we navigate the world and the body's response to sound.

"I wanted to know what part vision played in the interpretation of sound," Curtis said.

Spurgeon was born four months prematurely and developed retinopathy of prematurity because incubator oxygen damaged her retinas.

Her parents have told her there are baby pictures of her focusing on objects.

"I don't remember seeing, which is probably better for me -- I'd rather not know what I'm missing out on," she said with her guide dog, Ireland, at her side.

Most of the blind artists who collaborated with Curtis were found with the assistance of Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind sites, including Talladega, Mobile, Huntsville and Birmingham.

Curtis found Spurgeon through the University of North Alabama's development services office.

Spurgeon moved from Washington state with her husband in 2007 and is a junior at UNA studying elementary education.

As she sat on the veranda in front of the UNA student center, a drum circle's steady rhythm acted as a sonic backdrop.

When asked about her participation in the art, Spurgeon said, "I don't know if it means anything -- it was fun."

She mainly thought about "how weird the music was most of the time."

She uses echolocation -- sounds as a way to orient herself, such as the distant sound of water from UNA's main fountain.

"If I walk by a tree, I hear the tree," she said. "If there's too much sound, I get really disoriented."

The intersection of visual art and blindness isn't unprecedented. Spurgeon recalled tactile picture books for the blind when she grew up. The books had raised line drawings and thick plastic shapes.

During a visit to London, Spurgeon got to touch the wax sculptures at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Sighted visitors are not allowed to touch the figures.

In the future, Curtis said he hopes to find participants on a national scale.

Plus, "I would like to revisit many of the participants to see if they got anything out of it," Curtis said.


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