Inside the First Art Gallery for Blind Artists and Audiences

Feel free to touch the art at Envision Arts Gallery in Wichita, Kansas. By Jennifer Billock
Published on 6/23/2023

A few years back, I was at an art gallery in Sweden and leaned a little too close to check out the paint job on a particular piece. Suddenly all sorts of alarms were chirping around me, alerting everyone in the gallery to the fact that I was too close to the art! They didn’t kick me out or anything, but it was a bit embarrassing, to say the least. Because as we all know, art in galleries is meant to be observed, and not touched.

That creates a big problem, though, for visually impaired people who can’t actually see the art. How can they tell what a piece looks like if they can’t feel the hard ridge of paint left after a swipe of the brush, or the delicate stubble of a pointillism portrait?

Envision Arts Gallery in Wichita, Kansas, is solving that problem. It’s the first art gallery in the United States created by and for the visually impaired community. All of the art exhibited here is meant to be touched – something the staff had to push me to do when I visited, because I was so conscious of the rules at other galleries.

Envision Arts’ program manager Sarah Kephart notes that through the gallery’s mission of providing opportunities for artists and audiences with visual disabilities, there’s an opportunity not just to build and strengthen the community and improve quality of life, but also to close a gap in the art world. Envision’s programming “enhances creative diversity and gives agency to individuals who have long been marginalized in the field of expressive arts,” she said.

That inclusivity and agency begins from the literal ground up. The floor at Envision is covered with white ridged lines-cord covered over with tape-so people using sight canes are able to walk to each art piece. On the walls, each piece of art has a QR code for a spoken description of the artwork, and braille displays for each artist’s name and title of the piece. And, of course, all the artwork is meant to be touched.

When I visited, I ran my fingers along the textured interiors of large kintsugi bowls in the Golden Repair exhibit, featuring work by Black and disabled artists Ciara McCaughy, Larrida Murphy, and Brandon Murphy. As part of the Wrap, Cross, Repeat exhibit, I squished around sculptures wrapped in rubber by blind artist Monte Arst, who has always loved the smell of fresh rubber, and felt the ripples of repeating patterns in paint by artist Jenny Knapp-patterns that represent the repeated daily behaviors of visually impaired people that allow them to have control over their lives.

Exhibits at the gallery change every three months. The current one on display (through July 28), Masterpiece Relief for the Blind, actually shows artwork from a sighted artist, Tomas Bustos, from Dallas, Texas. It’s the first time the gallery has shown work from an artist with full sight. Bustos is a sculptor, and his work recreates famous artwork into tactile pieces for the blind and visually impaired to experience. His tactile versions of Starry Night and the Mona Lisa are on display, as well as a brand-new piece-a bronze-cast recreation of American Gothic by Grant Wood. It was a long process to make the latter. Bustos sought out permission from Nan Wood Graham, the painter’s sister who modeled for the woman in the portrait, to create his project, noting that this would finally allow people with sight impairments to enjoy the painting as well. At first, Graham (who died in 1990, if that gives you an idea of how long this took) denied Bustos. Eventually, though, he convinced her and she acquiesced in writing. And now, Bustos says, everyone can “see” it.

“As an artist, I can create and make anything I want to,” Bustos, said in a press release. “But I’m not doing this for myself. I’m doing this for a whole community [of people who are blind or visually impaired] who have never been able to see original works.”

Envision Arts has only been open since January 2022, but the reception has been stellar, Kephart says. They’ve already held 16 exhibitions in the space with work from about 250 artists, and more than 5,000 people have come to visit. The artists are making money from the gallery as well; of the $25,000 in sales over the last year, $15,000 of it went directly to the artists.

Each exhibition has a community art aspect to it as well. With Bustos’s exhibit, Envision hosted a sculpture workshop for the blind and visually impaired where participants created their own small-scale clay projects. During my visit, the exhibits were paired with an art project of creating found poetry-verses made from random words cut out of magazines, newspapers, or other materials.

It’s free to visit the art gallery, located at 801 East Douglas, Suite 106, in Wichita. They’re open Monday through Friday from 10 am to 5 pm. All proceeds from merchandise or art purchased go directly to the artists.

Jennifer Billock is a contributor for Thrillist.

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