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Albright-Knox program opens new vistas for the blind

Linda Lazzaro is in love with painting.

Her descriptions of the oils and acrylics at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery brim with emotion, cutting straight to the heart of an artist's intention.

"One picture moved me to tears because it described want, poverty and neglect," Lazzaro said of one painting in the gallery's collection, likely a 19th-century piece by Honoré Daumier. "I felt a physical feeling of real sadness. I wanted to reach into that painting, snatch everybody and take them home with me."

For Lazzaro, the color purple evokes "a depth of passion and coolness." Red reminds her of "the warmth of cooked apple, tomato soup or sauce." And blue brings to mind images of "picking blueberries on a cool, summer day."

But here's the impressive part: Lazzaro has never seen a color. She's never seen a painting or a sculpture. Or, for that matter, a bowl of tomato soup. She is blind.

The last thing she remembers seeing was a flash of lightning through her dorm room window at the New York State School for the Blind in Batavia in the spring of 1962.

Her descriptions of artwork at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery are pieced together from tour guides' descriptions, her own memories and the occasional privilege of slipping on a pair of white gloves and running her fingers across Picasso's signature on a sculpture.

She shared her impressions of the art during a recent guided tour of the Albright-Knox for the visually impaired.

"I've never seen a color. But I associate it with flowers that I love, or feelings," said Lazzaro, 64.

Her sight was damaged when she was an infant.

"My mother's favorite color was turquoise, so when I think about turquoise, I think of my mother's voice and I think of just how much I loved her," she said. "I don’t have any visual sense, but I feel emotional depth with color that I can't describe."

Audrey Divita feels the countours of a plaster mask made with materials similar to those used by artist George Segal in his work "Cinema" during a tour of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery for the visually impaired. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A hands-on experience

Since 2008, the Albright-Knox has hosted guided "multisensory" tours and group art activities for the blind and visually impaired. Its current tour program, led by the gallery's Accessibility and Community Programs Coordinator Karen Duval, runs on the first Saturday and second Wednesday of every month.

The program mixes descriptions of works on view with opportunities for visually impaired to touch certain artworks and participate in an art-making activity based on one or more of the works they've experienced. And it is particularly well-suited to the gallery's current exhibition "Art of the Senses," which features installations all viewers are able to touch, hear, smell and even taste.

Art you can touch, taste and hear in new Albright-Knox show

Three visually impaired women and one service dog named Omni met Duval in the lobby of the gallery Wednesday afternoon. After a brief introduction, Duval led the group into the gallery's bright, glass-walled auditorium, where they sat in the front row and listened to a meditative 2012 sound installation by the Scottish artist Susan Phillipz.

Titled "The River Cycle," Phillipz's calming sound installation emanates from six speakers positioned on the east and west sides of the auditorium. It's based on a character from James Joyce's book "Finnegans Wake" and is meant to describe the journey of a leaf along the River Liffey in Dublin and to reflect the natural surroundings of Delaware Park.

"It seems like that's the life of that leaf," said tour member Kathy Lyons, 72, accompanied by her service dog Omni, after contemplating the meaning of the piece's plinking piano notes. "It hits the water and twists and turns."

Kathy Lyons and her guide dog Omni walk through the installation "SoundWay" by Brazilian artist Ernesto Neto during a program for the visually impaired in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Later, the group huddled around a square pile of brightly colored candies -- an untitled work by the late artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres -- as Duval explained to their surprise that visitors are allowed to pick up a piece of candy and eat it.

After listening to Duval's description of gallery staff replenishing the candy supply to maintain the shape of a perfect square, tour member Audrey Divita got an idea.

"I just have this feeling I'd love to mess it all up," Divita, 86, said with smirk. "Like a kid."

For Divita, who has some peripheral vision but no central vision, the program provides insight into artworks that most gallery visitors don't get.

"It's a wonderful program, and opens up vistas to you when you can't see and you feel shut off," said Divita, who was accompanied by her sighted friend Paul Kennedy. "We put on white gloves and felt a Picasso piece, and could feel where he carved his name. Probably if I was sighted and I came to see that, I wouldn't even notice it."

Participants in an Albright-Knox Art Gallery tour for the visually impaired stop for a look at the 1964 installation "Cinema" by George Segal. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

During the tour, the group also took in George Segal's popular installation known as "Cinema." The bright piece incorporates an illuminated movie theater marquee and a plaster sculpture of a man paused in the act of removing the final letter from the sign.

To give the group a better understanding of the materials involved in the piece, Duval passed around a plaster cast of a human face made from a similar material to Segal's plaster sculpture, as well as a wooden block letter "R" resembling the one on the marquee.

Upstairs, in the gallery's stately 1905 building, Divita, Lazzaro and Lyons reveled in a large-scale piece by Gonzalez-Torres: A towering curtain of hanging beads visitors must part to enter the "Art of the Senses" exhibition.

Lyons, who could barely make out the twinkling of the beads, said it reminded her of Niagara Falls.

And for Lazzaro, who marveled at the rare ability to move through a piece of art and listen to the sound it makes, the piece evoked something close to pure joy.

"Oh, my God, I love this," she exclaimed as she let the beads fall over her face on her way from one side of the curtain to the other and back again.

In a nearby room, the group made its way through an installation by Ernesto Neto made of macrame-style netting with ringing bells and seedpods attached. Lazzaro, again drawing on personal memories, said the sound of the piece reminded her of the bells she used to tie to her children's shoes so she could track their movements around the house.

Karen Duval, access and community programs coordinator, center, leads an art-making activity for the visually impaired in an Albright-Knox Art Gallery. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

A creative outlet

After the tour, the group made its way through one of the gallery's claustrophobic corridors to a subterranean activity room. There, Duval laid out strips of plaster cloth next to a clear plastic tub of water. She passed out four foam heads to the participants, with instructions to wet the plaster and apply it to the foam faces -- much like the technique Segal used to create "Cinema."

As they worked on their projects, the participants group chatted about experiences with art in the gallery's collection and their struggles with losing their sight.

"I like the combination of seeing art, getting to know who's out there, and making art," said Lyons, who skipped the plaster strips and instead applied colorful pieces of yarn to decorate her foam head. "Because the creative needs an outlet."

Duval, who joined the gallery in April, said she tries not to be heavy-handed with her descriptions of works so participants can use their other senses, memories and imaginations to fill in the gaps.

"A lot of people think, 'Why would a visual art museum be a draw for anyone who's blind or has low vision?' " Duval said. "But it is because you're accessing all sorts of different topics and subjects. It triggers things in people. People make emotional responses or they draw on other areas of their experience."

For Lyons, whose sight has become progressively worse, the tours connect her to a time when she could tell the difference between different colors.

For Divita, it provides a chance to engage intellectually with artwork in ways others aren't able to.

And for Lazzaro, it offers a space to indulge a creative impulse that has always been looking for a way out.

"It's been a source of joy and healing for me. It's very affirming to have a new window for your intellect that opens," Lazzaro said. "I feel so uplifted when I come here. And when I leave, it's like I've gotten a deep compression massage for the soul."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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