You've probably never heard that when visiting a gallery or museum, but it's the mantra at the gallery at Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.
Clovernook's gallery is an extension of its recreational programs for the visually impaired, which include art classes. In addition to showcasing program participants' work in solo and group shows, the gallery features two to three sighted artists (artists without visual impairments) each year, emphasizing art that lends itself to being explored through touch.
Jeff Casto's exhibition Aesop and the Magpie fits the bill nicely. His mixed media sculptures, assemblages and paintings naturally offer a variety of textures and materials. He also created several free-standing sculptures with this show specifically in mind.
At the exhibition's opening reception, Casto noticed that a few of his friends were resistant to touching the work because they've been conditioned to not to handle art in galleries and museums. Scott Wallace, Clovernook's recreation specialist and gallery coordinator, told me about a group of medical students that he blindfolded so they were required to experience the art by touch alone, which inspired me to do the same.
One by one I approached Casto's work with my eyes closed before looking at it, stretching my arms out and running my hands all over each piece. It was one of the most fascinating art experiences I've had in a while.
Of course, plastic, metal, ceramic, and wood all feel different. But did you know they make different sounds as you stroke them with your fingers?
I was often surprised by parts that moved and startled by surfaces such as feather or bone. It was difficult to fight the impulse to open my eyes. I caught myself constantly visualizing what I was touching, and then I realized that such a mental picture would be impossible for someone born without vision.
During my experiment -- exploring the show without my sense of sight -- I also realized that vision is often taken for granted and that most artwork neglects the other senses. For instance, when I approached Casto's sculpture "The Temple of Time," I was first delighted by the sound of a ticking clock and mystified by the unusual forms of the found objects.
"The other senses often become heightened when one is limited," Wallace said.
After being challenged by the tactile qualities of Casto's sculptures and assemblages, I relished in their playful color and wonderful found objects. Casto grew up in rural West Virginia, a world he says "seemed something like one of Aesop's fables, filled with winding roads, animals galore, legendary characters and moral absolutism."
He brings the fables to new life in works like "The Folly of the Fearful," inspired by the story of the bald man and the fly, in which a man tries to kill the fly but continually swats himself on the head. According to the artist, this moral tale about vengeance hurting the avenger also serves as a metaphor for the futility of the war in Iraq.
Casto thinks of himself as a human magpie, much like the bird that gathers shiny objects to make its nest. He collects "interesting and purposeful things, fashioning them in a way to communicate ideas."
These diverse ideas, ranging from the humorous to the personal to the political, find their home in eclectic constructions that are compelling to those of us who can see them, and also to those who cannot.
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