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Form in Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

by Lindsay W.

In a well-traveled corridor in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Education wing, President and Mrs. Obama dance at the inaugural ball, frozen in papier-mâché; a horse and rider made of steel wire prepare to charge into battle; an aluminum-foil woman lifts a friend from a pile of shattered dreams, represented by pieces of broken mirror, tiny Monopoly houses, and bits of paper money. The themes are potent and the concepts are strong—especially considering the artists who created them are legally blind.

In addition to sharing a visual impairment, students in the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Form in Art program also share a great enthusiasm for art, as is demonstrated by these works from their annual exhibition on display through August 2009.

Founded in 1972—one year before the Rehabilitation Act and 17 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act, Form in Art is a hands-on approach to art, both in the studio and in the galleries, where special “Touch Tours” break the cardinal rule of art museums and encourage blind visitors to discover selected works through their other senses. Touch Tours are led by specially trained volunteer guides who provide objective and richly detailed visual descriptions, supplemented by 3-D interpretations of paintings and other tactile clues geared to help enhance a blind visitor’s experience.

Judy Ramirez is one of many Touch Tour-certified volunteer guides. Once a hands-on volunteer in the studio portion of the Form in Art program, she used to mix paint colors, lend a steadying hand to the making of projects, and clean up after each two-hour studio session. Now she works in the galleries, tracing diagrams on students’ backs to explain spatial arrangement in Picasso’s paintings and finding new ways to describe Renoir’s rich palette—but she feels as though she is benefiting as much, or more, than her students.

“I was blown away by the students’ keen interest in art and determination to attend class every week—they do whatever it takes to get here, and so many of them finish the three-year program and just keep re-enrolling,” Ramirez said. “This is really a marvelous form of outreach, both to those with disabilities, and to those without. It’s certainly expanded my life, and expanded my view of what I thought a tour guide could do.”

Street Thoma, manager of Accessible Programs for people with disabilities at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says: “We use different words to help each of our different visitors access the same work of art, whether the visitor is a pre-school child, an art student, a plumber, or a blind man. We supplement these descriptions with people’s sense of touch. The visual arts facilitate communication and connection in many wonderful ways. Volunteers are an integral part of this program, and, indeed, of this art museum.”

Michael Gieschen, of Downingtown, PA., a longtime participant in the program and the artist behind the coiled horse and rider on display, adds “…together we help each other understand our gifts and to reach our greatest potential as artists and as people.”

The Philadelphia Museum of Art’s Form in Art program is administered by Judy Wise, Form in Art coordinator. For more information about the program, call 215 684-7606 or visit www.philamuseum.org

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