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'Touching' art invites closer inspection


Joyce Scott's "Mamie Wada/Winged" is a 2-foot-long sculpture made of fiber, clay, shells, hair, beads, bones and grass. Pick it up and you can feel the differences between its cool ceramic elements and its warmer fiber elements.

Winnie Owens-Hart's "Nigerian Water Drum #10" is a hollow, almost spherical ceramic piece with a hole in one side and a neck and mouth at the top. Pick it up and you smell the smokiness left over from its firing. You play it by beating on the two openings.

Susan Harlan's "Journey and Chart IV" is a book in a steel box on legs. You can take the top off the box, take the book out and page through it, unlike the usual display of artists' books under glass or labeled "Do Not Touch."

The art on exhibit in "Touch: Beyond the Visual," which opened at School 33 Art Center yesterday, doesn't say "keep your distance" or "look reverently but don't handle me because I'm too important." This art needs to be touched, picked up, held. It says "explore my surfaces and textures."

The show's mission is to teach us that art can be appreciated in ways other than by looking at it.

"It's for all types of people," says Angela Adams, one of the show's two curators. "Touchable shows often tend to be very much for the visually impaired. This is breaking the boundary of art being precious."

It also provides a fuller experience of art by allowing us to think about it the way artists do. Exploring art through handling it allows us to get closer to the way it was made, an essential to understanding, says Adams. "For most artists -- for every artist I know -- process is the most important thing, and the product is a sort of byproduct of the process. Anything we can do to make the person experiencing the art think about the process, and think that art is not off-limits, is a good thing."

The show originated as an idea Adams and co-curator Paula Owen had for fusing visual art and craft concepts. Adams is an adjunct curator at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington; Owen is executive director of Richmond's Hand Workshop, a center for craft arts.

"We wanted to do this for 1993, the Year of American Craft," says Adams. "We wanted to explore more ways in which fine art and craft are feeding each other. The works were to be touchable and reflect a dedication to the interest in materials. Craft artists begin with materials. I like the idea that craft is appealing to more and more people who were trained as fine artists." About half the artists in "Touch" were trained in fine arts and half in crafts.

Organized as a regional traveling show, "Touch" opened at the Hand Workshop and comes to School 33 on a three-state tour of Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina.

"Chronic visual overload and new technology [have] made it more difficult to look at art in anything but superficial glances," the curators write in their catalog essay. "Like travelers who create memories from their snapshots instead of from their experiences, we who have been schooled through slides in darkened rooms, have learned to put our aesthetic trust primarily in our visual sense.

"A few artists today, however, are investigating the notion that an aesthetic experience can evoke a full range of sensory responses."

Although "Touch" primarily investigates that sense, other senses are involved in this show. Smell is an important component in the experience of Owens-Hart's piece. And Paul Teeples' sculptures involve hearing.

His "Prayer Totem" is a 6 1/2 -foot-tall work incorporating a round drum with four extended arms by which one can spin it. "There must be water inside," says Adams, "because you spin it and it makes a comforting musical sound. His 'Prayer Box' has holes in it and you are invited to hammer a nail in a hole. You pick it up, LTC and it also makes a musical sound. Just looking, you would not be able to tell much about it."

Adams says about half the show's 21 artists made works specifically for this show. Others contributed already extant works that especially benefit from being handled. The two "Mamie Wada" pieces by Joyce Scott of Baltimore are in the latter category. They were made 10 years ago.

Scott says it's unfortunate the question of whether art needs to be experienced more than visually even arises. "It shows how separate we think art is, and how over-intellectualized it is."

"Touch" is not unique in presenting art that can be touched, but Adams says it's different from similar shows. "There have been such things as museums doing touch shows, but those [works of art] were not necessarily things that were created to be touched. These things were." People coming to the show will not be told how to touch the works, or limited in exploring them. "People can do whatever they want," Adams says.

Allyn Massey, from Baltimore, created a steel tent-like form stuffed with cotton. "At the Richmond opening," she says, "kids were sliding down the face of it. People were horrified [but] it's OK with me."

The ultimate piece in "Touch" may be Cate Fitt's "By Day He Was Her Father," which involves fabrics of different textures, along with the title embroidered onto the piece in Braille. "If you look at it from a distance," says Adams, "you might not see anything at all. It has to be experienced tactilely."

Perhaps that's why Fred Bixby, a visually impaired artist from Winchester, Va., was so impressed by it when he visited the show earlier this year with his wife, Janet, a blind poet. He describes Fitt's work this way:

"What you have there is a hand made out of sandpaper -- rough -- and a velvet pillow with a little doll that's soft and very vulnerable next to it that represents a child. It's about incest, and the contrast [of textures], along with the title, is just devastating. It's a brilliant piece as far as I'm concerned."

Although the show wasn't conceived for a non-sighted audience, Owen says the curators recognize the potential interest of a visually impaired audience. "It was conceived of as an exhibition which incidentally could be appreciated by a non-sighted audience."

In fact, the non-sighted audience may get more out of the show than the fully sighted, precisely because its sense of touch is more developed.

Touch works as "another way of accessing the world around you," says Jim Kiem, an orientation and mobility specialist at the Maryland School for the Blind. "Touch is the way that a person who doesn't have the visual information coming in is going to get the information -- finding the doors, the stairs, the relevant

environmental information."

School 33 has worked with an advisory committee of the visually impaired to develop accessibility aids. "We've made the catalog into Braille and have Braille labeling," says School 33 director Claudia Amory. "We have a low-vision reading system to blow up the catalog on a screen so visually impaired people can read it. We have an audio descriptive tape that can be played on cassette."

There's also another tape, of poems written by Janet Bixby, who was so moved by the show she wrote a series of poetic interpretations of the works.

"The most exciting thing to me," Bixby says, "is that we are beginning to see artists who are saying touch is an important part of art not just for blind people but for everybody. Touch has been treated as if it's a second-class sense -- you touch if you can't do anything else."

Here's what she wrote about Cate Fitt's "By Day He Was Her Father":

What's wrong with this picture? Why, in blackness,

Does this huge hand, this patch of ugly roughness

Stretch out its fingers lying on baby softness

Of satin skin snuggling in the velvet?

Read in embroidered braille of innocence

Invaded by the violence of evil.

I shudder. I will not rewrite the words.

This is a show that challenges sighted people to get as much out

of its works as the non-sighted do.


What: "Touch: Beyond the Visual"

Where: School 33 Art Center, 1427 Light St.

When: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Jan. 14

Call: (410) 396-4641

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