On a recent Tuesday afternoon in the cafe at the National Gallery of Ireland, Sophie Lawler is sat at a table with a sheet of paper in front of her.
It’s not just any paper. It’s “swell” paper. Not groovy stationary, but a special type of paper designed to expand in the places where it’s been marked and heated.
On this sheet of swell paper, there are simple raised line figures, and raised blotches like splashes of ink, which are touchable, like Braille.
“It’s a religious work,” explains Caomhán Mac Con Iomaire, an education assistant at the gallery, as Lawler feels the swell-paper version of the artwork. “The right hand is against her heart and her robes are coming down. And the lines represent a halo.”
The original religious work that Mac Con Iomaire is talking about is Jacques Yverni’s The Annunciation, a giant golden painting from around 1435 which depicts the Virgin of the Annunciation kneeling at an altar, as she receives the message from the archangel Gabriel.
In the background is a tiny baby Jesus, being sent like a reverse-rocket down from heaven. On one of the sheets of the swell-paper version, this detail is blown up into bigger, raised shapes.
Lawler, who runs her own food business, has peripheral vision, but can’t see the field of vision in front of her. She runs her fingers along the lines on the swell paper.
“That’s amazing,” she says. “I wouldn’t have seen any of that myself, even if it was up to my nose!”
Visual Art for the Visually-Impaired
For the past couple of years, the National Gallery of Ireland has been working to make its collection more accessible to those with visual impairments.
At the centre of that effort have been tactile boxes, with sheets of raised images, and occasional props. Some are black lines in relief. Others have colour.
“If you close your eyes and touch things, you visualise things, you’re getting a broader engagement with the arts,” Clare McLaughlin, a visual-arts student at the DIT campus in Sherkin Island in Cork, who has been involved in the project, had told me earlier. “It’s more available.”
Her interest grew out of a sense that making visual arts accessible wasn’t really on the agenda. “They may have felt that there wasn’t anything there for them. That may have been a right or a wrong feeling,” she says.
One of the paintings that has been through the tactile-box treatment is A Convent Garden, Brittany by William John Leech. A fresh canvas of spring greens and yellows and whites, light and shade, it shows a novice nun dressed in white gazing upwards in contentment.
The sheaf of swell papers that matches this painting include: the raised outline of the nun, and raised dark blotches against a white background that seek to show where there is light and shade. By breaking down the painting into touchable parts, it makes it easier to digest.
As well as the paper, most of the paintings also have props or canvases so you can feel what the brushwork is like, said Mac Con Iomaire.
He gets out a block of canvas, striped and dashed with textured paint against a flat-colour base that looks like a piece of the painting. “There are two styles coming together here: the impressionist style, which is thick paint very quickly applied, and also, this more academic side,” he says.
Once the visitor has been through the panels with the tactile boxes, and felt what the painting looks like, if they have some sight, they go and visit the painting.
Just the Beginning?
There’s a growing interest in exploring creative ways to make galleries more accessible, says McLaughlin, the visual-arts student. Galleries are looking into it, and visually-impaired art lovers are looking for it.
The National Gallery is on track to expand the number of paintings in its collection that are more accessible to eight, from Picasso’s Still Life with a Mandolin, to the less well-known Sofonisba Anguissola’s Portrait of Prince Alessandro Farnese.
The paintings have been selected with the aim of giving a sense of the National Gallery’s collection as a whole, said Mac Con Iomaire. “We wanted to provide a tour that would match the type of tour we would do for the general public.”
It’s not the only gallery working to make exhibits more accessible. In London, New York, Florence and Mexico, there have been shows that invited blind visitors to touch replicas of sculptures or paintings.
Closer to home, the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny has been using Discovery Pens as useful audio guides. In 2013, the gallery for the first time used the pens to make visual arts more open to those who are blind or visually impaired.
Audio comes with it’s own challenges, says McLaughlin. “That’s a skill in itself because it has to be non-subjective.”
You have to pick words carefully, staying conscious of any connotations. “You’re letting the person experiencing the art, experience it without any conditionality,” she said.
Lawler says she hasn’t been to the National Gallery in years. She only visited this time at our request.
She hasn’t stayed away because she feels excluded, more because she has the it’s-on-the-doorstep syndrome that you get when you live somewhere, forgetting about museums and galleries that tourists travel thousands of miles to experience. But she might come back with her sister, who is also visually impaired, she said.
Generally, the best way to use the gallery’s tactile boxes is in tours for groups of three or fewer, says Mac Con Iomaire. It means that the guide can answer questions, and give everyone enough attention.
Also, it’s better to book in advance than drop in, so the gallery can make sure to have somebody trained available, and can book a quiet room in advance.
Many of the folks who come in for a tour with the tactile boxes are repeat visitors, he said. With that in mind, the gallery is working hard to expand the collection.
Next up? Jack B. Yeat’s classic, The Liffey Swim.