by Amy Monthei

I have been an active member in FIA for a few years and have had the wonderful opportunity to work with the other talented artists within this affiliate. When Minneapolis was selected as the site for the 2007 ACB convention, the planning for FIA events began. Janiece Kent and Elsie Monthei from FIA asked if the art consulting firm that I work for, Art Holdings, would host some kind of a tour. My wheels started turning and after a lot of brainstorming, came up with a sensory tour that was later called "Please, Do Touch The Art."

A few years ago I started to create art that was not only visually pleasing but also had highly textured surfaces and pieces that contain braille words. I wanted to make pieces that could be enjoyed, in very different ways, by the blind as well as the sighted. It is a goal of mine as a legally blind artist and an advocate, to create art that is more accessible, to help others understand the importance of experiencing art and the role it can play in the lives of every person.

I talked with Greg Hennes, our CEO, and Leslie Palmer-Ross, the director of retail operations at Art Holdings, about hosting the tour with FIA. Both of them thought the tour was a great idea. They understood how it might be intimidating for a blind person to come into a museum or gallery in the first place and then ask to touch the art. We wanted to help ease that feeling of apprehensiveness. Even though some museums do have programs in place, there is usually very little art that can actually be touched in their collections due to the age and condition of the artwork. Most museums are not accessible and don't have programs set up specifically for the blind. Hennes and Palmer-Ross also felt that the staff at Art Holdings would greatly benefit from such a unique opportunity.

In the few weeks before the tour, we started gathering our most interesting art objects, the majority of which were created by local artists and are handmade from a large variety of media. We had so much fun picking out the pieces and choosing the objects that had the most interesting tactile surfaces within our collection.

My sister Paulette Bartelt, executive director of The Center For Deaf Blind Persons in Milwaukee, volunteered her expertise in talking with our staff so they felt prepared for the tour. She described the most common types of blindness people experience that we were most likely to encounter in those taking the tour. She had us look through goggles that simulated these different types of blindness, trained us on how to be sighted guides, talked about etiquette and answered many questions from our staff. "This wasn't just training for today -- this was training for life," said Melissa Mullins, art consultant.

We set up our front showroom tables with a large variety of objects: brightly colored glass vases and bowls in many shapes and sizes, wood mosaic sculpture, inlaid stone sculpture, birds carved from marble, textiles, bronze figures, raku (which smells like smoke) and assorted glazed pottery. On our front wall we hung pieces made of metal that had many tactile elements made by Kim Grant, one of my paintings (a tactile river), and an authentic Japanese handmade kimono embroidered with peacocks and cherry blossoms. The kimono was the only piece that thin gloves had to be worn to touch because the silk is very delicate and it would absorb oils from the hands. All of the objects were handmade and for sale, everything from a $75 small bronze sculpture to a $16,000 six-foot totem representing the tree and river of life made of glass and wood mosaic by Paul Olson.

When everyone arrived, the staff assisted people into the showroom. After everyone had cleaned the surface oils off their hands we were good to go -- the excitement spread like wildfire! Our staff was there to assist in describing the art and answering questions about the artists and the artwork. Everyone got to see everything and each person had his or her favorite piece. "The tour participants had infectious energy and enthusiasm," Palmer-Ross said. "It was a great exercise for me to think of art from a totally different perspective. 'How does it feel?' instead of 'How does it look?' What are different ways to describe things to people who may not have the visual references that I do? I was excited by the things that the individuals with vision loss taught me and I enjoyed sharing my love of art with them."

Our event was covered by local NBC affiliate KARE-11 and a short clip aired at the end of the six o'clock news that same day.

Upon her return to work after the event, Paulette stated, "I shared the experience with my clients at our Monday lunch hour; they were really excited that Art Holdings had taken the initiative to do such a neat endeavor. I had so many questions about what Art Holdings had available for show and touch. They all wished that they had the opportunity to see everything also."

Art has the power to bring people together in a significantly profound way. "There is nothing more important to our society than strengthening bonds between and within our communities," Palmer-Ross said. Would we host a sensory tour again? In a brushstroke!

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