“Touching Experience” showcases art inspired by the visually impaired

Joe LeBlanc methodically exploring JJ Long's collage

What does an art exhibit that considers the visually impaired look like? If the Touching Experience exhibition is any indication, it looks like a celebration among friends who discover through art what is possible for others.

Photo by Julia Swerdlov
Photo by Julia Swerdlov

A few artists in Malden and the surrounding area offer this multimedia exhibition of touchable art through June. Held at the Beebe Estate Gallery in Melrose, a Touching Experience is a combination exhibit of touchable art and works produced by artists with some vision loss, and a performance series intended to appeal to everyone, including individuals with little or no sight.

Alyce Underhill and one of her art exhibited works.
Alyce Underhill with Tree (Mixed Media)

Touching Experience comes as a response to a friend’s journey going blind.

Alyce Underhill, Georgetown artist and founder of the project,  describes a day three years ago, when guitar maker and musician friend Joe LeBlanc comes to her photo exhibit. “He stands three inches away from the image. Even then, he has to ask his wife to describe what she sees,” she emotes. “That is so wrong.”

Joe LeBlanc methodically exploring JJ Long's collage
Joe LeBlanc methodically exploring JJ Long’s collage

“By not offering enough accessible art, we’ve cut people with vision impairments out of the art world,” says Alyce. Haunted into action, she plants a seed with local artists. They respond enthusiastically and “jump with her off a cliff” as she puts it. A band of performers and artists, including Joe LeBlanc and wife Becky and many others, pull together an inclusive exhibition.

Yes, an art event for everyone.

With plenty of ideas and collaborative energy the project has unfolded to the exhibition at hand. But more is to come, for as the individual artists have evolved their own processes and thinking so has this project.

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Artist: Sharon Santillo’s Warn Hansel and Gretel

Two Malden artists describe participating in this show as rich in purpose and artistic growth. Sharon Santillo is one of the artists.  She has to adjust her typically flat material and processes to something three-dimensional. For this Sharon finds inspiration from her favorite recycle supplies store. Christmas discards of ribbons, candy canes, sparkles, and textured papers lead her to most of her works – including Warning to Hansel and Gretel. Her pieces are a three-dimensional rendering of her own stories that she shares at the exhibit. Sharon also offers a Family Stories workshop on the last Saturday of June – incorporating a bit of this expansive creativity with individuals to make their own story in this way.

Photographer Ose Manheim, famous in Malden for her nature designs, eagerly answers Alyce’s call but has to grapple with what to produce.  Though full of texture, photographs are not tactile necessarily. For ideas, she thinks about textures and material in nature: earth, shells, and rocks. She considers a relief, drawing on her history with clay work. She recalls that her former pottery teacher Harry Hall taught a method of clay work to blind potters. Finally identifying the mediums from the earth, three ceramic pieces and two shell collages result.

Other efforts to incorporate senses beyond sight include Becky Leblanc’s poetry recited with a scan of a QR code and Painter JJ Long’s thematic collage with accompanying soundscape, Gary Borkan’s blown glass vases of varying shapes, and more.

Photo Courtesy of Julia Swerdlov
Photo by Julia Swerdlov

For participating performer Santon, touch is not an appealing way to experience art. Blind from birth and a musical savant, music is his language. For the event, Santon accompanies a tango dance demonstration, provides background music for the opening reception, and is partner to CD Collin’s spoken word performance.

CD Collins, artist and resident of Malden, has been striving to bring the arts to more people including those with disabilities. Her  involvement with Touching Experience is a natural. It is a progression of her intentions as performance artist and writer. A guest at a recent a workshop in DC for art leaders, she welcomes the education and insight for how best to expand the reach of the arts. She hopes that through this and other events everyone can increase their sensitivity toward individuals with disabilities and be inclusive about the making and the sharing of art.

Including touch as one way to experience art may do more than reach the visually impaired. It promotes engagement, for as Candace Julyan of Malden comments, “being able to touch the art is relaxing and strange, for we are used to the “do not touch” signs of most galleries and museums. Maybe that makes us more open to connect with each other.”

Photo by Julia Swerdlov

Whatever the ingredients that make Touching Experience what it is, what it looks like is much more than a gallery of touchable art. It looks like a spirit, a demeanor, a way of being more inclusive and thoughtful. It feels exciting. You walk away with new sight but not from what you see but what you experience and are now part of.

The exhibit is open every Saturday through June 27, 2015 from 11:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.

About Ose Schwab 7 Articles
Ose Schwab is a member of MATV/UMA's staff and a local community arts organizer and enthusiast. She believes arts, culture, and the opportunity to create together are necessary for forming a cohesive community that honors the voice of every individual.


  1. thank you thank you …you captured precisely what this event is all about ! I am touched!

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