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2004 Press Coverage

Program shows art can extend beyond sight

By Susan Brandenburg
River City News correspondent

Donning paper-thin gloves, visually impaired visitors to the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens' Art Beyond Sight open house Nov. 13 took a "Touch Tour" guided by the Cummer's Hope McMath, director of education.
Before the tour, McMath verbally painted a detailed picture of two sculptures, describing Jacob Epstein's 7th Portrait of Kathleen and Renoir's Aileen, both bronze busts of the beloved wives of the famed artists.
"Learning some of the history of the artists and their works made the tour even more exciting," said Dan O'Connor, an Arlington resident and counselor for Jacksonville's Center for Independent Living. President of the Jacksonville Council of the Blind and a "touch tourist," O'Connor was one of more than 100 guests at the event.

Emily Michael, 16, plays her own compositions during Art Beyond Vision at the Cummer.
Emily Michael, 16, plays her own compositions during Art Beyond Vision at the Cummer.
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Attendees at Art Beyond Sight included board members of the Vision is Priceless Council from St. Vincent's Medical Center, Duval County Art Educators, students and faculty of Florida Community College at Jacksonville's Independent Living for Adult Blind, members of the Southeastern Guide Dog Association and several other area services related to the visually impaired.
Guests viewed an art exhibit by students from the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind, participated in several creative tactile, 3-D art projects manned by Cummer art educators and learned about the museum's Arts for All Program. The latter provides opportunities for touch tours, painting to music and studio art projects using alternative art tools designed for those with limited movement, lack of fine motor skills or visual impairment.
"The beautiful artwork created by students from the St. Augustine School for the Deaf and the Blind is just one example of the creativity that comes through patient, innovative teaching," McMath said.
Touching leaves, twigs and branches in the Cummer's gardens, students returned to the museum to create a dramatic Autumn Leaves display of plastic-coated and copper wire sculptures. Swirling, colorful paintings of water lilies were inspired by the music of Debussey and Handel.
"They became immersed in the creative process," McMath said. "Working with community partners like ILAB, the St. Augustine school, and others, we are dedicated to sharing the beauty of art with everyone."
"She has very beautiful hands," whispered Irene Walsh, running her gloved hands over Epstein's sculpture during the touch tour. "Is she praying?" asked Jessica Moss, circling the graceful bronze fingers with her own.
Continuing their art initiation, McMath asked the group to describe what they had "seen" with their hands.
"Renoir's sculpture is smiling under her flowered hat," observed O'Connor, "and Kathleen seems to be pouting. I see qualities I like in both of them."
Throughout the evening, music floated from the lobby of the Cummer, as Emily Michael played a medley of Christmas carols and her own compositions. Michael, 16, was born with Leber's Syndrome, a rare retinal disorder resulting in blindness.

Dan O'Connor has Hope McMath smiling during Art Beyond Vision at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.
  Dan O'Connor has Hope McMath smiling during Art Beyond Vision at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens.
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Residents of the St. Nicholas area on the Southside, Emily's parents, Simon and Kathryn Michael, took their infant daughter twice to the Lion's Eye Bank in New Orleans, and to Shands hospital in Gainesville, where doctors repeatedly told them she had a degenerative disease, giving them little hope she would ever see.
"It was a healing service at Nombre de Dios Mission Church in St. Augustine that changed that diagnosis," recalls Simon Michael. "Doctors can't explain it, but we know God's hand is in Emily's amazing progress. She's on her fifth pair of glasses and her vision is improving." A sophomore at Bishop Kinney with a 4.58 grade-point average, Emily is in the National Honor Society, a member of the chorus, active with Special Olympics and on the Duval County School Board's Advisory Committee for Special Needs Children. Last summer, in conjunction with her classes at Independent Living for Adult Blind, Emily volunteered as a counselor at Camp Cummer, a children's summer art camp sponsored by the museum.
"As a person born with low vision myself, I was awed and inspired by Emily's enthusiasm for life and her incredible gifts in art and music," said Jan Atchley Bevan, author-in-residence at the Cummer and a national ambassador for Very Special Arts of Florida. "Emily was a terrific counselor with a sense of humor and spirit that endeared her to everyone on the staff."
"I was nicknamed Jan Bevan's 'Mini-Me' because we have so many interests in common," said Emily, laughing as Jay Solomon of St. John & Partners, one of the sponsors of the event, snapped a photo of her at the piano.
Like Bevan, Emily is a musical composer and has a flair for writing.
"I want to be a best-selling novelist when I grow up," she said. "I'm currently working on a fantasy novel that's in its fourth re-write."
For members of Jacksonville's visually impaired community, the Art Beyond Sight open house was a real eye-opener.
"The pioneering programs being developed at the Cummer in the field of arts in health care are models for art museums everywhere," Bevan said. "As Hope McMath said tonight, 'Art is for everyone.'"

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