"ABS NEWS & VIEWS " : Winter-Spring 2004-2005

1. ABS's Work Subject of Documentary Film by Kartemquin

2. ABS Celebrates Access and Diversity at the Apollo Theater

3. Congenitally Blind Turkish Artist's Exhibit and Symposium

4. Seventy-one International Organizations Celebrated Art Beyond Sight Awareness Week

5. ABS Needs Your Support


ABS’s Work Subject of Documentary Film by Kartemquin

Filmmaker David Simpson, shown above (right in photo) with his camera and sound men
“Prophets, beggars, musicians, savants, captives of darkness.... Blind people are the objects of many myths and stereotypes in movies, literature and everyday life. This attests to our fascination with the most feared, romanticized and misunderstood of all disabilities,” says David E. Simpson, a director and independent filmmaker. “The majority of sighted people list eyesight as the sense they would be least willing to part with. Yet we cannot take our eyes off the blind. We are curious about their world: how do they navigate, what can they do and not do, what exists in their mind’s eye?”

David Simpson and Kartemquin Educational Films – perhaps best known for “Hoop Dreams,” an Academy Award nominee and winner of numerous awards including the 1994 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award, Chicago Film Critics Best Picture Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Documentary Award, and the 1995 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award – teamed up with the Art Beyond Sight (ABS) to create the demo for “The Mind’s Eye,” a feature-length documentary David has been crafting award-winning films and television programs for more than two decades. His documentary about disability culture, “When Billy Broke His Head...,” received international praise a jury award at Sundance, a duPont-Columbia Baton for journalistic excellence, and prizes at a dozen other film festivals. “Refrigerator Mothers,” David’s recent film about mothers of autistic children, won top honors at the Florida, Indiana, and Sedona film festivals. (For more on Kartemquin Films, visit

When artist Judith Druck (left in photo) lost her sight, her granddaughter, Elisabeth Axel, seen here with her son, Matis, began looking for ways Mrs. Druck could continue to enjoy art.
How did you find out about ABS?

I had seen a NY Times article about ABS’s work bringing blind people into art museums, and I was fascinated by the concept of a person without sight trying to create a mental image of an artwork by bringing in information through other senses.

You’ve described this non-profit as your perfect partner to create this documentary. Why?

As a documentary maker, I like to work closely with organizations and individuals that have intimate knowledge of the world I am depicting. Elisabeth Axel, founder and executive director of ABS, and who holds a PhD degree in art history and serves as ABS’s associate director, have been steeped in the worlds of blindness and education for many years. Their interest in the intersection of disability, art and science aligns closely with my goals for this film. I'm finding their knowledge, perspective and connections to be crucial at every turn.

Esref Armagan, blind from birth, and Dr. John Kennedy
What is your vision for the full-length film?

There are so many questions I want to explore in this film, related to the sensory, cognitive and cultural aspects of blindness. For example: Is there such a thing as "blindness culture" (languages, humor and social hierarchies unique to blind communities)? How is the experience of congenital blindness different from losing one's sight later in life? Are blind folks more ‘color blind’ to questions of race, ethnicity and class?
Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Harvard Medical Center
What is the employment outlook for people with blindness or visual impairment? What do the blind“see,” literally and metaphorically [scientific investigations featured in the film – including fMRI studies of Esref Armagan, a congenitally blind Turkish artist, conducted at the Harvard Medical Center – shed fascinating light on this]. And how important is access – even for blind people – to the “visual literacy” that is the cornerstone of our culture? Mostly, I want “The Mind's Eye” to entertain, fascinate and inform, while depicting a multi-faceted world that sighted people have rarely glimpsed.

Future issues of this newsletter will update you on this film and its release.

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ABS Celebrates Access and Diversity at the Apollo Theater

Elisabeth Axel is seen here with Jimmy Carter
On November 4, 2004, Art Beyond Sight and Apollo Theater Foundation hosted a memorable evening to celebrate access and diversity in New York City. The guests attended a performance of “The Gospel at
Colonus,” followed by the tour of the theater, chat with the Blind Boys of Alabama and other cast members, and a reception.

David Rodriquez, Executive Director of the Apollo Theater Foundation, notes, “We have hosted many performers who developed their unique talents here despite adversity, discrimination, and disability. Ray Charles and The Blind Boys of Alabama are just a few of them. So, it was a natural match for us to welcome Art Beyond Sight and friends to the theater for a wonderful performance featuring Charles Dutton and the Blind Boys of Alabama.” (For the Apollo’s schedule, visit

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Congenitally Blind Turkish Artist's Exhibit and Symposium

Esref Armagan
“I am really curious about beauty….People who can see are always talking about beautiful things that I cannot see,” says Esref Armagan, a congenitally blind figurative artist from Turkey. Esref was in the center of ABS’s June symposium held at the American Folk Art Museum. The full-day symposium, which was attended by museum educators, teachers of blind children, and artists and art lovers who are blind and visually impaired, coincided with Esref’s one-man exhibition in New York City, also organized by ABS.

Born to a family of little means in one of Istanbul’s poor neighborhoods, Esref made his first pictures with a nail on the cardboard boxes his father brought home from work. He received no support or understanding from his environment. Like many blind children in Turkey, he had no formal schooling, as people did not think him capable of learning. Later he taught himself how to write.

Oil on canvas by Esref Armagan
“Esref shows what blind people can do, if only we had realized it,” says Dr. John M. Kennedy, a professor at the University of Toronto and a long-time advisor to Art Beyond Sight. “He is the breaking wave of the future. What he does now, in 20 years many blind people throughout the world will be doing,” he adds. Kennedy, who met Esref during his June 2004 trip to New York City, explains: “Esref shows abilities only achieved by sighted people after long development. I compare him at times to artists in Italy in the early Renaissance. At times he is like a 19th-century graphic impressionist. His drawings are sometimes literal, sometimes fanciful, and sometimes metaphoric. He draws better than almost every sighted person I have had in my classes.”

The Honorable Frederic K. Schroeder, PhD with AEB’s associate director, Dr. Nina Levent
ABS’s Elisabeth Axel noted in her speech at the opening of Esref Armagan’s exhibition that even after teaching art to blind people for 17 years, it was hard for her to believe that these vibrant and detailed figurative paintings were made by a congenitally blind artist. “What we see in Esref’s work is opening a new horizon for many blind students of art. It also validates the work that Art Beyond Sight, along with museums and schools around the country, has been doing.“

The exhibition coincided with a convention of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly Committee on Disability, and many of its delegates attended Esref’s one-man show. Among them was Kicki Nordstrom, Secretary General of the World Blind Union, who spoke briefly at the exhibition’s opening reception about the importance of art and culture in the lives of all people.

Kicki Nordstrom, Secretary General of the World Blind Union (left in photo), said a few words at the exhibit’s opening about the need for access to culture and the arts for all people. She also took time to explore ABS’s tactile books and discuss the issue of access to visual information through tactile images with ABS’s executive director, Elisabeth Axel (right). Kicki Nordstrom and Elisabeth Axel
At the UN convention, Ambassador Luis Gallegos Chiriboga of Ecuador, chairman of a committee drafting a binding international treaty on the rights of persons with disabilities, noted that it would take more than money to comprehensively address the needs of persons with disabilities worldwide – now estimated at 600 million and sure to grow because of the rapid aging of the world’s population. Disability is not simply a governmental issue, but a societal one, he stressed. It is necessary to change the customs and mores of society to make it more integrated and holistic. Therefore, resources are not the only requirements, but attitudinal changes are necessary as well.

Judith Schmeidler and Francesca Rosenberg
Art Beyond Sight Awards 2004 were presented by Esref Armagan and Francesca Rosenberg of the Museum of Modern Art on behalf of the Art Beyond Sight Collaborative. The 2004 award recipients were: Judith Schmeidler, The Jewish Museum (shown in photo, with Francesca Rosenberg); Charlotte Schwartz, The Jewish Museum; Ines Powell, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Nica Lalli, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Pamela Lawton, The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Rebecca Hinde, Lower East Side Tenement Museum; Kit Shapiro, Queens Museum of Art; Carolyn Herbst, United Federation of Teachers; and Deborah Goldberg, PhD, The Museum of Modern Art.

Thanks to the Moon and Stars Project for making this event possible.

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Seventy-one International Organizations Celebrated Art Beyond Sight Awareness Week

Italy’s Museo Omero, Ancona
Art Beyond Sight’s second annual Awareness Week got off to a rip-roaring start with its October 11, 2004, press conference held on the steps of New York City’s stately City Hall. Representatives from many of the city’s participants shared the microphone with ABS’s Elisabeth Axel and . Among them were Dr. Carole Gothelf, assistant executive director of programs and services at The Shield Institute, and Carl Jacobsen, president of the National Federation of the Blind New York.

Elisabeth Axel opened a press conference
“Let me give you two facts,” said Carole Gothelf in speaking of the importance of Awareness Week and its goals. “One, disability is the only minority that any one of us can join at any time. Two, since the Industrial Revolution, our life expectancy has doubled. The chance that we will confront vision loss looms on the horizon. This is not just about somebody else. This is about each one of us. So what do people want? What do people who confront vision loss every day want? They want to be a full person. They want to engage in life. They want access to learning and to culture.”

Awareness Week’s poster
“Just as any majority group should be concerned with the rights of a minority and the inclusion of a minority,” stressed Carl Jacobsen, “so should sighted people be looking for full inclusion of blind people…You may not be blind yourself,” he added, “but your neighbors are and other members of the community are, and to the extent that blind people are excluded from society, society is poorer.”

Barry Kleider and students
Helping to raise awareness to the need for and benefits of art and culture in all of our lives were 71 organizations that joined ABS in celebrating Art Beyond Sight Awareness Week (more than double the number of participants in 2003). The activities they planned to celebrate Awareness Week far exceeded the expectations of ABS, which organizes this international initiative. Events ranged from special touch tours at museums such as New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and South Street Seaport Museum, to a backstage tour and audio description of the Colorado Ballet’s performance of“Dracula.”

Robert Qualters
A number of schools and even some state boards of education participated in this year’s Awareness Week, often in conjunction with an area museum. For instance, children from the Colorado School for the Deaf and the
Blind created Braille nametags for visitors at the Denver Art Museum. Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art had a free concert of 18th-century music by the Alabama School of Fine Arts’ orchestra, after which students who were blind or visually impaired were invited to handle the musical instruments. The museum also hosted a studio art session for the students; it included a holiday card-making contest.

Leena Hannula
The Florida School for the Deaf and Blind incorporated art-making activities into many of its classes. In a science class, for example, children collected leaves and then used them to make collages. At Pittsburgh’s Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children, awardwinning artist Robert Qualters worked with the children in a special sculpting class. The students began by working clay into various fruit shapes, but soon moved into creating clay replicas of their favorite foods.

“Projects like this shake up everyone’s understanding of blindness and visual impairment,” notes ABS’s associate director, Dr. . “Some people still consider blindness and the visual arts an unlikely match, but it
isn’t. Art has tremendous value for creators and beholders, regardless of their abilities. It also has immediate tangible educational and health benefits.”

The health benefits of art for people who are blind and visually impaired were discussed on CBS TV’s Channel 2 news program on October 20. As the program’s medical editor, Dr. Sapna Parikh, noted, the opportunity to create art is crucial for a child’s psychological development and personal growth. Making art and design choices, finding a reflection of self in one’s art, helps to develop self-esteem and a secure sense of self. For blind and visually impaired children, museum visits mean better social and communication skills, and community integration. For seniors with vision loss, being part of a museum community means coming out of the isolation of their homes, making new friends, and overcoming the psychological challenges of living with vision impairment.

tactile illustrations
The tactile illustrations in ABS’s Art History Through Touch and Sound volumes were used in many museums and schools’ Awareness Week events.

Visitors with audio
The Art Institute of Chicago offered audio description tours.

Carl Jacobsen
Carl Jacobsen, president of the National Federation of the Blind, NY, was among the speakers at the press conference.

Ann Winters, left, is shown with students
Denver Art Museum educator Ann Winters, left, is shown with students from the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind at the Awareness Week table the students hosted in the museum’s lobby.

from left, Dennis Sparacino, American Museum of Folk Art educator Janet Lo, and Mindy Fliegelman, second vice president, National Federation of the Blind, NY
CBS TV’s Dr. Sapna Parikh marked Awareness Week with a morning news segment featuring ABS’s Elisabeth Axel and, from left, Dennis Sparacino, American Museum of Folk Art educator Janet Lo, and Mindy Fliegelman, second vice president, National Federation of the Blind, NY. Here, Dennis and Mindy explore tactile diagrams from a volume of ABS’s Art History Through Touch and Sound.

blind and sighted teenagers
Awareness Week was truly international. Here, blind and sighted teenagers are shown participating in the program at the South African National Gallery.

Dr. Nina Levent
Awareness Week not only provides opportunities for raising public awareness, but also for educators and concerned individuals to network. Two examples of this are ABS’s 12-hour conference call course (experts discuss a different topic each hour, with question and answer periods following their presentations) and the Museo Omero’s “Art Within Reach,” an international conference on museum accessibility for people who are blind, held in Ancona, Italy.

Poster for the international conference in Italy
presented a report about ABS’s work in the last decade and the Web-based tools that will be available to users worldwide at this international conference. In an address by Pedro Zurita, former Secretary General of the World Blind Union, read in his absence due to an illness, he commended the work of the ABS and asked specifically for support of our effort to create an art encyclopedia for blind people.

Meredith Viera
Awareness Week, which actually spanned two weeks in 2004 (October 11-25), will be the full month of October in 2005 and hence will undergo a name change to “Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month.” We expect to have more than 100 participating organizations from around the world, and are already working on exciting activities, including an international conference to be held in conjunction NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.



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Painting by Peter Paul Rubens; detail of woman carrying a basket on her head and holding the hand of a child. Half the image is a tactile drawing, half the original painting.Rubens paintingRubens painting
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