Braille Art and the Power of Touch
We all know how difficult it is when birthdays and Christmases roll round as each year advances. Your intimate knowledge of your partner may increase, but your knowledge of what he or she already has diminishes the probability of coming up with a present that will show them just how much they really mean to you.
When your partner is blind, the possibilities are even further diminished.
My wife Julie is blind, and she has been for nearly twenty years. Before Christmas 2005 I was looking for something that was really special, something that had to be personal, accessible to her, convey my love, and be a lasting tribute to her.
At this point I should explain that I am an artist, and you could be forgiven for raising your eyebrows at an apparently odd coupling of an artist and a blind woman. How could I gain inspiration and support for my work from her when the work could not be seen?
Pondering this apparent enigma was the catalyst that provided the answer to my quandary: yes my wife is blind, but she has vision! She has imagination, foresight, and empathy that go far beyond mere physical sight. How then could I create an artwork that would allow her to appreciate and enjoy it.
One of Julie’s great loves is braille. Above the entrance to Louis Braille’s birthplace in Coupvray near Paris are the words:
He opened the doors of knowledge to those who cannot see.”
Julie learned braille after losing her sight and it brought the world of the written word back into her life.
I determined to make a braille art piece that Julie could read, and I decided it should be equally accessible to a sighted observer. By combining the letters of the alphabet with the braille dots, using the dots to represent the letter “O” I planned a piece that achieved my aim.
I solved the puzzle of finding perfect hemispheres for the dots after a considerable search, by cutting table tennis balls in half, and gluing them in place among wooden letters of the alphabet.
Having asked Julie whether she saw blackness, or whiteness, on the strength of her answer I chose a completely white art work in a completely white frame.
For her to read what was to be her painting it had to be touchable, so I sprayed the finished work with several layers of fixative.
The word “VISION” describes my regard for her insight and intelligence, and the resulting work can be read by a braille reader, or a sighted print reader.
My planning came to fruition on Christmas day when, with some trepidation, I presented her with the gift and watched as she unwrapped it.
Her reaction when it was revealed was many times the reward I had hoped for. She read the braille and burst into tears. It was a memorable Christmas for both of us.
Since then I have created other braille works: “LOVE”, “LOOK” “DO TOUCH” OK” “OUI OUI LOUIS” among many others. Purchasers have included private individuals as well as corporates.
My framer would accept these unusual works with total equanimity, and when the framing was finished, would ring me and say “Your ping pong balls are ready!” which he continued to do despite my protestations that they were to be described as polycarbonate hemispheres.
“VISION” features in the book Learn World Calligraphy by the American writer and scholar Margaret Shepherd.
We recently downsized from a large house to a two bedroomed apartment necessitating the sale and disposal of many art works that we have collected over the years.
One work however that will remain in eternal pride of place on our now limited wall space will always be “VISION”.
Ron Esplin: Ron is a Dunedin-based artist. For further information go to www.ronesplin.co.nz