“If you went blind tomorrow, would you still visit the art museum? If you couldn’t see art, would you still be able to have a positive art experience?” With these questions in mind, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) started developing its programming for the visually impaired in 2012, as part of an initiative started by NYC charity Art Beyond Sight. Last month I was teaching the program.
On a rainy and cold Saturday morning in November, a group of around twenty individuals make their way to the museum. Most of the people know each other, shouting names and hello’s. A few are here for the first time. The group is very much up to date with what is on at the museum - some people have been coming for years - so the program usually covers works from the latest exhibitions.
My colleague and I have both chosen a work from the recently opened exhibition Kindred Spirits: Dorothy Hood and Louise Nevelson, and we each spend forty-five minutes leading a discussion about these works. The Light of Rain by Dorothy Hood immediately appealed to me: it has a mix of abstract and figurative elements and its title is pure poetry. Dorothy Hood was of the same generation of famous abstract artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, and her works show a masterly control of colorfield painting. Spending most of her life in Texas, away from the male-dominated New York art scene, she never really got the attention she deserves.
As a starting point the participants are given tactile hand-outs, on which contours and textures are enhanced. I rendered the shape of the clouds in thick foam, to highlight their density, and used puffy paint for the thin, wiry strands of rain. It doesn’t take the group long to identify clouds with rain.
It is important to give a rich description of the object. There are many ways you can talk about art without relying purely on the visual: dark and light areas, different ways the paint is applied, scale, movement, how each element is situated in the larger composition. In The Light of Rain the clouds are painted in a very thin layer of oil paint, washed down so that they are visibly filled with water on the canvas. In contrast the background is dense and dark and seems to recede infinitely, a re-occurring motive that Dorothy Hood called ‘The Void’. Hood made this work at the time when Nasa had just moved to Houston, and from her journals we know that she was enthralled by space travel and the mysteries of the universe.
The title of an artwork takes on extra significance for the visually impaired. What do we feel when hearing ‘The Light of Rain’? A member of the group is reminded of hurricanes, with their dark ominous skies. Someone else talks about how behind every cloud there is sunshine. I point out that the clouds in fact have a white line around them, and this made me think of the expression ‘clouds with silver linings’.
From all corners, members share their ideas. I am starting to realize that there is a silver lining right here: without being able to resort to sight, the group is able to draw from an exceptionally rich imagination. After I told them that the artist made this painting having just moved back to Houston from a twenty-year stay Mexico, someone remarks that ‘the Void’ must reflect the artist’s state of transformation between the two worlds of Mexico and Texas. Another participant jumps in, offering that the shape in the top feels like the head of a Longhorn, Texas’ distinctive bull.
We talk about about why only few people have heard of Dorothy Hood, and how being a female artist away from the epicenter of abstraction must have taken its toll. Most of us agree that Hood deserves more attention, and I can sense frustration in the group, as well as pride that we may be witnessing the resurrection of a local celebrity. The forty-five minutes of conversation has flown by. I secretly hope that the participants will continue talking about Dorothy Hood, and clouds with silver linings, over the lunch in the museum’s cafe that follows each session.
When I later ask Chelsea Shannon, the Interpretation Specialist responsible for the program, about her experience, her passion stands out. “This is an incredible group of people, with a wide variety of backgrounds, meaning that the conversation is always unpredictable. There’s always at least one moment in a tour where I’m just totally floored by the insights the participants have about works of art they can’t actually see. Every single program changes the way I think about the artwork we’re discussing.”
With a small modification to museum programming - finding a way to describe museum objects effectively - a whole new group of individuals from the community can enjoy all the museum has to offer. As the MFAH’s website explains, “[w]e think of art in terms of the visual: color, composition, texture, technique. But artworks involve much more than the physical: broader concepts, narratives, political statements, historical contexts. Art Beyond Sight goes beyond aesthetics and considers what really makes museum objects important: culture.”
I too found it strangely refreshing to skip the tendency we all have to judge an artwork by its visual qualities, or to compare to works we know by famous artists. This group is able to suspend judgment, instead delving straight into the meaning of the artwork and its positioning in the broader world. The MFAH’s motto greets me when I am leaving the session: The Museum of Art, Houston aims to be a museum for all people. Outside, a shimmer of sunlight is coming through the clouds, the silver lining to an inspiring, affirmative and inclusive morning.