Arts: Visually Impaired Artists Sculpt, Find Community at Vision Thru Art

Joe Saxon carefully placed the finishing touches on the clay bowl he was sculpting. He then slid out of his chair, making sure his white cane was safely folded underneath the table and handed his artwork to a volunteer to place in his cubby to dry.  

“I am an artist,” Saxon said. “I lost my eyesight, [but] that’s really still my passion, to do artwork.”

Saxon can usually found in the same chair every week at the Vision Thru Art program at Allens Lane Art Center. He has been attending classes, working on his sculpture skills, for the past two-and-a-half years.

Saxon works on sculpting his bowl for class.

Vision Thru Art is a weekly sculpture class for blind and visually-impaired artists, held on Wednesday and Friday mornings and Friday afternoons at the Allens Lane Art Center in Mt. Airy. For more than 30 years, Vision Thru Art has offered classes at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Allens Lane Art Center, though classes are no longer available at the museum. As of 2014, the class has been made free to all students, which includes free access to art supplies. 

“There really isn’t much funding out there that we found for blind artists,” said Craig Stover, executive director of Allens Lane Art Center. “There’s funding out there for people with disabilities and for health, and a lot of that [funding] tends to go toward education.”

Stover said many people don’t understand the concept behind the Vision Thru Art class, thinking it is an art therapy class. 

“It’s a sculpture class for people who happen to be blind and we treat it that way,” he said. “Even the people that are in the program, I am always referring to them as artists, not students.”

It is these small details that make a difference, Stover said. 

“First off, it’s respectful to them and what they’ve been through,” he said. “Secondly, it’s just telling the truth. We’re just helping them bring out their inner vision.”

Two foundations provide the main financial support for Vision Thru Art. The Kulick Family Foundation, a small foundation started by the Kulick family, provides support through grants offered on a three-year cycle. Members of the Kulick family had been on the art center’s board in the 1950s. 

The second and most recent partnership has been with the Bartol Foundation, which helps fund artists to teach the sculpture classes.

Adrienne Justice, the teaching artist for Vision Thru Art for the past two-and-a-half years, said it’s important to have a wide variety of projects that members of the program can pursue at their own pace and comfort level. 

“It’s a really diverse group of people in terms of visual impairment,” she said. “Some people come here with a level of sight, and then a lot of people don’t have any sight. People just enter into the project in different ways.”

Their current project began with a template poem titled “I Am From,” inspired by George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From.” Individuals responded to prompts about memories of their lives — such as their childhood home and favorite toy — that were then audio recorded. As the next step in the project, Saxon and the artists created sculptures pertaining to their poems. 

“I was born in Baltimore,” said Rhonda Gray-Upsey, who has been in the program for five years. “We had a big three-story row home and it was bright pink. So, when I paint that [house] I’m going to make it pink.

Gray-Upsey spent the class shaping a square of clay into a familiar potato shape.

“Two of my toys were a little red wagon and Mr. Potato Head, which is what I am trying to do,” she said.

Gray-Upsey finishes sculpting Mr. Potato Head’s mouth at the end of class.

In the class, Justice suggests ways of thinking about art that build on an individual’s strengths, their experiences, and the particular ways they best experience the world.

“It’s just a balance between what’s visual, what’s tactile, and what’s neither of those,” Justice said. “In this case, [a student’s poem] can either stay written or become audio, depending on what they’re comfortable with.” 

For Gray-Upsey, her interest lies in creating functional pieces of art which she often gifts to those in her family. During the week, she takes care of her mother, who is ill, and said Vision Thru Art is a great stress-reliever.

“I’ve made an ice bucket for my sister-in-law,” Gray-Upsey said. “I made a mug for my mom and window chimes. My aunt had a fire at her house, so after they fixed it up and she moved back in, I gave her those chimes as a gift and she loved it.”

While some focus on their art in class, others continue their passion for the arts outside of the community center. Saxon, who had not previously worked with sculpture before, has a website where he features paintings he’s produced. He likes Vision Thru Art because it continues to give him opportunities to work in different mediums, he said. 

“There’s a huge need for a class like this,” Stover said. “Because, there’s really nothing out there like this.” 

Funding is also getting harder to come by every year, Stover said, especially for what many foundations and funders consider to be a niche program. 

“If nonprofits can be funded to be inclusive to people with disabilities, then it expands our Philadelphia art community,” Justice said. “Which is what we should want.”

Though funding is important and will always be a concern, for Justice and Stover, the benefits of the program can’t be assigned a monetary value. 

“For one thing, I’ve been accepted into a community that existed before I got here, which is really quite an honor,” Justice said. “The students are my friends and I consider them artist colleagues.” 

Amber Denham is a graduate student in Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication where she is earning a Master’s in Journalism. For the next several months she will be reporting on arts education in Philadelphia.

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