Jacksonville’s Cummer Museum recently received a national, lifetime-achievement award for making its art accessible to people with disabilities.
Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts recognized the Cummer for long-running programs, like an arts festival for kids with disabilities and a monthly art-making group for the blind, called Women of Vision.
Even though its members can’t see, the program that started in 1998 manages to keep them engaged with the visual arts.
Every meeting starts with story time. On a recent Friday afternoon in a museum classroom, the Women of Vision were telling each other about their favorite shoes they’ve ever owned. Each session, they get a homework assignment to write a story for next time. That way, they listen and commiserate before making art.
Renee Byrd has been part of the group for two years.
“This is where I come to be with my family that I don’t live with at home,” she said. “And we just share and share, and everybody—all the women, of course, are visually impaired, so we all understand where everybody’s been.”
That sense of community was what Women of Vision’s founder had in mind nearly two decades ago. Sister Elizabeth Fiorite is blind herself. She approached the Cummer about creating the program, with the help of a $5,000 grant from her religious order, the Sinsinawa Dominicans. Now 83, she still comes monthly.
“It’s wonderful. I’ve grown old with all these women,” she said. “I would come twice a month if we could make it happen.”
She says the museum pays the women’s cab fare each month so they can attend. And it creates annual exhibits of what they make, like photographs they took in the garden outside with the help of sighted instructors.
“When the museum mats and frames these pictures and we have an exhibit, they look like a million bucks,” Fiorite said.
On a pedestal outside the classroom, brightly glazed ceramic pots are on display—another of their projects.
“It lends itself so nicely to this kind of population, something that you can touch and you can feel the whole way through,” he said. “We do some two-dimensional work, which is good, but once you’re finished with it, or once you’re framed, you lose that connection to it.”
Patterson also guides the women on museum tours, describing the art in great detail. Some remember colors from before they lost their sight. Others rely on their hands.
The group recently enjoyed a bronze statue by wearing latex gloves.
“We get to do it because we can’t see it any other way,” Byrd said.
The Women of Vision’s art work is on display at the Cummer through the end of October. They meet one Friday per month.
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