by Ann Cunningham
From the Editor: Ann Cunningham is an artist with a significant reputation, but most of her career accomplishments of late have been found in introducing blind people to the world of art. She has been a pioneer in working on techniques that allow her to share one of her significant life interests with people who are generally not thought to be capable of enjoying or participating in art. Here is what she has to say about a recent grant received in recognition of the work she is doing:
This year I am celebrating my twentieth anniversary of teaching art at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB). As I inch toward retirement, I was concerned that the art program would fade away if I didn’t take some action to make sure that a succession plan was in place. To me, this meant that I needed to find a teacher to take the program over after I left.
When I first came to the Center in 1998, I was seeking help with a public art commission at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind in Colorado Springs. My only concern was to make a good piece of art that was also accessible and meaningful to students.
I found the folks at the Colorado Center were happy to help me with critical advice about my approach to my project. I was also introduced to a student who was in the middle of a complex project. He was creating a tactile map of a large hotel in Atlanta, the site of the National Federation of the Blind Convention in 1999. This student asked if I could read floor plans.
And so my education began. David James, the student I was working with, clearly instructed me as we made stairs out of popsicle sticks: “Ann, make a set of stairs. Now close your eyes and make another set and pay attention to how you do it. Make as many as you need to until you figure out what you are doing. Next tell me.” That was the beginning and has remained the foundation of how I teach. I learned about how genuine accessibility and effective communication can create an inclusive learning environment.
The next year I offered to teach. For many years I was just trying to find the edge of the envelope of what kind of art my students could make. We never did find that limit, and I now know that people who are blind are no more limited in their potential than a person with sight. Creative vision does not discriminate!
When I heard about the Arts in Society grant, I couldn’t help but think that this might enable me to explore the idea of offering training to a person who was interested in teaching art who was blind. I had a student in mind, and I wrote the grant. Her name is Jenny Callahan, and she had gone blind overnight about two years before I met her in my art class. She had just recently graduated from the Center when this opportunity presented itself.
We were awarded the grant in 2017, and the adventure began. It was not easy for Jenny and me to form this new partnership. This is where the true value of the grant became apparent: I felt a huge obligation to make it work or give it back. So when we ran into an obstacle, we would collect ourselves and try again.
Our big breakthrough came when I finally understood that even though she did indeed want to teach art, she had her own ideas about what she’d teach and how she was going to go about it! It seems funny, looking back now, that the key trait that anyone needs in the arts is creative thought, and that was what was getting in our way. Once I understood that I could best serve our goals by guidance and not instruction, we made headway. We began seeking out specific information to help Jenny accomplish her goals. This has taken the form of offering and taking workshops. We have also been able to order tools and materials for new techniques of art making for community projects.
The Arts in Society also allowed Jenny to test her abilities when she was able to conceive of and organize a large community project in Orlando, Florida, at the National Federation of the Blind Convention. She invited anyone interested to stop by and contribute as much or as little as they wanted in the construction of a huge colorful octopus, “Calypso.” It was then displayed in the main convention hall where 3,000 attendees could appreciate the work of their cohorts.
During this grant we have had the chance to work with Marie Gibbons to learn hand-built clay techniques. Jenny is working with an intern from Katie Caron’s ceramic class at Arapahoe Community College to set up the art room at the Center so that Jenny can offer wheel-thrown pottery instruction. We took a class on costuming from Virgil Ortiz at the Colorado Fine Arts Center. Now we are getting ready to take an anatomy class from the Zahourek Systems Anatomy in Clay learning series. These opportunities were made possible by the grant and are essential in building Jenny’s repertoire of creative options.
Our community is growing. Just as I was instructed by my first student, all my students became my instructors. Jenny is now teaching 3D sculpture at CCB on Fridays. She is offering paper mâché, chicken-wire float sculptures, alabaster stone carving, hand-building clay techniques, wax sculpture to be cast in bronze, and whatever else she cares to do! Soon she will also be able to offer wheel-thrown ceramics!
I am teaching a twenty-three-week program to all the students at the Center on tactile drawing. It includes concepts of perspective, drafting and STEM illustrations (charts, graphs, maps, and diagrams), as well as creative self-expression. And the great news is I am working with a staff member from the Center who is proving to be an adept teacher herself as she quickly learns the concepts and then assists me in teaching. My fingers are crossed that she will be interested in continuing!
This Arts in Society grant continues to make an impact every Tuesday and Friday in art classes at the Colorado Center for the Blind, and on the third Tuesday evening of each month at Tactile Art Club. If you would like to stop by and observe either class, please contact me at: email@example.com to make arrangements. Or if you would like to join us for Tactile Art Club please send me your email address, and we will send you an invitation with times and location. Everyone is welcome!