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“Making” Information Through Tactile Learning at The Colorado Center for the Blind

At some point in the life of an artist, a light bulb goes off. A central question, brought on by an experience, that guides their work in the days and years to come. The “muse” can have the odd quality of being everywhere, while coming from nowhere.

Ann Cunningham started sculpting stone as a teenager. At age 25, she became particularly taken with slate, a material that was thin and easy to work with. Cunningham used slate to fashion low-relief pictures. As she hung one such picture at an exhibit in Boulder, Colorado, the question hit her: “Would someone who was blind be able to figure out this picture?”

Cunningham’s career subsequently unfolded on several orbits: as a tactile artist, botanical illustrator, and an art educator. All the orbits revolve around that central question.

Cunningham has been an instructor for 23 years at the Colorado Center for the Blind, a world-renowned training center focused on developing blindness-skills in Littleton, Colorado. Housed in an old YMCA building, the Center has plenty of room for tactile activities—and programs for kids and for adults. Students learn social skills, how to read braille, how to keep a kitchen accessible, and how to read maps. And with Cunningham, they learn fine art through the power of touch.

Hand model work by one of Ann Cunningham’s students at the Colorado Center for the Blind.

Anatomy, Cunningham admits, is a “big leap” for some students to take. In such complicated subjects, it is important to make information tangible and concrete— a truth that applies to sighted and unsighted students alike. Anatomy in Clay® Models help.

Cunningham fondly recalls attending a workshop with a blind student studying to become an art instructor. To her pleasant surprise, the student kept pace with the teacher and the other sighted students in the workshop. “So much information was shared,” says Cunningham, “but since we were making the information, we were placing the information, we didn’t have to have a lengthy description about where the heart exists between two lungs…we could feel it.”

Cunningham also remembers a recent high-school graduate at the Colorado Center for the Blind who was preparing to study occupational therapy in the college. She will need to know the anatomy of the hand, Cunningham thought, so she obtained a hand model from Anatomy in Clay®, complete with clay and a thorough manual of clear illustrations.

So, what did Cunningham do? Like any good tactile artist, she gave the images life. Using a special paper containing microcapsules, she traced around the hand illustrations, drawing hash marks around proximal attachment points, and dots around distal attachment points. She then passed the paper through a machine called an “enhancer”—which, combining heat with the black ink, activated the gas bubbles in the microcapsules, in effect “raising up” images that were once flat on a page.

Translation: the blind student could feel insertion and attachment points on the page. Then, using calipers and a straight edge, she cut the (clay) muscle, and correctly placed it on the model.

Most schools, Cunningham says, will “explain, explain, explain.” But most explanations rely on visual cues: a whiteboard, a textbook, or a video. Imagine not being able to see. Will the student really be able to grasp which joint the muscle spans?

For Cunningham’s students, working with tactile art gave them an understanding that was “so much more solid” than what a verbal description (or visual cue) could provide.

Cunningham’s creative approach to learning has garnered her a few awards over the years: the Benjamin Franklin Award by the Independent Book Publishers Association; the Sydney Parkinson Award from the Denver Botanic Gardens; and the Jacob Bolotin Award for significant contributions through innovation from the National Federation of the Blind.

Yet the teacher is not one to look back. She is currently at work on what she calls “sensational books”—tactile art, in book form. The books will be separate by year: newborn to one-year-old, one- to two-year-old, and “on down the road,” says Cunningham.

Listen to the rest of the innovator’s conversation on the Anatomy in Clay® Learning System's podcast!







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