Sight loss doesn’t have to mean people can no longer appreciate art.
This very simple truth underpins the latest outreach work undertaken by the RBSA. With the help of funding from West Midlands Museum Development, we are taking art to people who may experience difficulties accessing our exhibitions and Permanent Collection.
Brendan Flynn, the RBSA’s Professor of Art History, took a selection of artworks to the Focus centre in Harborne, where people with a range of visual impairments receive support in managing complex eye conditions.
Brendan was able to bring his expert knowledge to a sensory session and workshop where attendees handled sculptures and produced their own art from original lino blocks by German printmaker and illustrator Heinke Jenkins RBSA.
‘We were able to talk about art and exchange ideas in a relaxed atmosphere, where nobody needed to feel under any pressure or on the spot,’ Brendan said.
‘It’s a more ‘freeform’ encounter with art – all about touch, handling objects with no fear of being told ‘It’s precious, don’t drop it!’
‘People had the confidence to handle different materials and learn more about the artists and sculptors behind the works.’
Brendan passed round sculptures by Viv Astling RBSA, and bronze art medals by renowned medallist Ron Dutton, in addition to some African soapstone and ebony works from his own collection.
Nuala Jones, a retired deputy head teacher, has been coming to Focus art sessions for several years.
She said: ‘The workshop was brilliant because it was so accessible. I have virtually no sight at all but I loved the stone, the textures of the different sculptures and how artists interpret different materials.’
Nuala, who experienced sudden sight loss following a course of treatment for lymphoma four years ago, made a wax rubbing from a lino block used in the printmaking process by Heinke Jenkins.
‘Making my own picture, feeling and exploring the textures used by the artist in the lino block was really interesting,’ she said. ‘I’ve always liked art and would go to art galleries – I was sighted until about three years ago – but I hadn’t actually done any art myself since school.’
A large bog wood sculpture by Juginder Lamba took centre stage at the sensory session. Estimated to date back to the Bronze Age, the bog wood came from a large peat bog near Chat Moss, Lancashire and as it emerged during land reclamation, the artist carried it off to work into beautiful sculptures.
For Chris Vyse, a 63-year-old former nurse, the lack of any barriers to the art was the best thing. ‘Often at galleries, you can’t get nearly so close up. You aren’t allowed to touch, and you are some distance away, so I can’t read the labels. It’s been great to be actually allowed to touch and handle artworks.’
The memory of having her sight is important to Chris. She experiences distorted ‘underwater’ vision due to Keratoconus and said: ‘A lot of what I see is in my head. When I produce paintings or drawings, it takes me back… I remember the sea, and the sun, and colours.’
Volunteer Veronica Hills said: ‘It was great to have people feeling the items on display and exploring the different ways of producing art.
‘The bog wood sculpture was a big hit, as people were experiencing it on so many levels and the story behind the piece was fascinating.
‘You can tell from the energy at the session how much everyone enjoyed it. If anyone out there is running a group who could benefit from an RBSA visit, I’d say go for it! It’s well worth it, because there really is something for everyone.’
How to book an outreach visit
- Call or e-mail the RBSA Gallery on 0121 236 4353, email@example.com
- Ask to speak to Natalie Osborne, the Learning and Engagement Manager.
- Provide information, such as: the type of activity you would like, the times you would like this to take place, the group size, and location.
- Where funding is available, the RBSA will provide activities for free. However, if funding is not available, we have to charge to cover costs. Therefore, please also mention what budget you have. Where possible, we always try to offer something within budget.
- All activities are administered by an RBSA staff member, delivered by a professional artist, and designed in line with RBSA safeguarding and health & safety policies. Outlines and risk assessments can also be provided.
- If you have any queries, please do not hesitate to contact Natalie (working hours Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm), who will be very happy to help you.
- How to find us (includes access film): http://www.rbsa.org.uk/whats-on/how-to-find-us/
- Disabled access guide: http://www.rbsa.org.uk/whats-on/disabled-access-guide/
- RBSA What’s On: http://www.rbsa.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/current/
- Focus Birmingham website: https://www.focusbirmingham.org.uk/
This work is part of a project funded by the West Midlands Museum Development Fund, which is managed by Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust with funding from Arts Council England.