Giving The Blind A Way To 'See' Art

May 10, 2017

Margareta Claesson has 'low vision.' She enjoyed listening to the new audio art description of 'Major The Bull' in downtown Durham.
Credit Leoneda Inge

There is a new arts program underway in Durham that seeks to make sure everybody gets the chance to enjoy the city’'s growing array of downtown public art – whether they can see or not. And these art descriptions are now just a phone call away.

One of the most prominent and popular pieces of public art in downtown Durham is Major The Bull. It's hard to miss the large bronze statue, except if you are blind. The DADA Project – which stands for Durham Audio Described Art – wants to fix that.

"You can sit or stand on it to touch the bull. The bull stands about 10 feet above the platform," the narrator said on the recording. "The tips of the Bull's horns are about 8 feet above the platform as well. Major The Bull is cast in bronze, mostly very smooth. It is particularly muscular and vascular."

This excited Margareta Claesson. She stood near the statue listening to the brand new description on a friend's cell phone after dialing (919) 694-DADA. Claesson is considered visually impaired, she's blind in one eye and only has partial vision in the other. She's impressed with the touchable description of Major The Bull.  

"Inviting you to come up and touch it and hold it, and that, especially for me, has become really important that I can touch things and smell them now," said Claesson.

Claesson's friend with the cell phone, Beth Fowler, has no vision problems and was still drawn in by the new service.

"I think it's useful for sighted folks as well," said Fowler. "It makes you see it; really see it."

Arts Attorney Dan Ellison has been working on DADA for more than a year. It was born out of a course he teaches at Duke University called Introduction to Non-Profit Cultural Institutions, a service learning course. Ellison says access to the arts is important to him.

"Right now the idea is to let it even the playing field a little bit so to speak, so that a person who is blind or low vision at least has some inclusion in the exhibit," said Ellison.

Ellison said he and his students make sure the audio descriptions actually describe the physical shape, size, texture and other intimate details of the art piece, which are not always included in curatorial audio guides in museums.

Duke University student Imari Genias worked on the audio described art project. "It was hard at first because sometimes you don't know if you are being, putting too much of your personal opinion into the description or you’re not being objective enough," said Genias.

Fellow Duke student Katie Herrmann also worked on writing and recording the descriptions. "I know we had a few class discussions about a certain piece of art, and if us calling it a shack versus or just describing the actual shape of the building was putting too much interpretation into it," said Herrmann.

While students struggle to get the art descriptions just right, there can be other challenges. Just ask former Durham County District Court Judge Craig Brown, who is blind.

Brown has had the chance to critique some of the art descriptions but tells Ellison he wasn't able to hear the description of Major The Bull on his phone.

"We have to work on that. There have been other people, maybe with other phone devices that have been able to do it," Ellison said with a laugh.

"We can put it this way, there are other blind people who are more competent than me.  Let's just cut to the chase, Dan," Brown chuckled.

So far there are nine pieces of public art in downtown Durham with call-in audio descriptions. They include "Visionary Leaders in the New South," a bronze tribute to Durham's Black Wall Street, and the "Time Bridge" mural painted on the side of the YMCA. Soon, the visually impaired will be able to hear the audio descriptions of nine permanent pieces at Duke University's Nasher Art Museum.