The moment when Camille Jassny gets it about Picassos The Kiss.
  • The moment when Camille Jassny gets it about Picasso's The Kiss.
People who can't see—who were born blind, who are losing their vision slowly, or who lost it all at once one day—still want to see Picasso. Which is why two dozen people came together at Seattle Art Museum last Saturday morning: for a tour of Picasso for the blind.

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They broke into four groups, each assembling in front of a single painting before rotating to the next. A docent was stationed at each painting to lead the tours, which have been going on at SAM for only a couple of years. This is a new thing for the museum; it's being spearheaded by a partnership with a Seattle organization called Vision Loss Connections, which was founded by a woman named Patt Copeland. This was the second tour of Picasso with VLC. On the first, last month, Copeland discovered a mass grave in the exhibition. She can see somewhat, but her vision are blurry and sometimes doubled (perfect for Picasso). Standing in front of Picasso's anti-war portrait of a firing line in Korea, the tour guide had described to her what the fuzzy brown rectangle at the left of the painting was: a hole in the ground where bodies would be dumped. It changed the whole painting for her, heightened it, that detail snapping into view.

So what happens exactly? Tours for the vision-impaired rely on verbal description. The docents speak every detail of the painting. In the case of Picasso, it's funny to hear. "That eye, well, it's beneath the nose, yes." (As a seeing person, listening to one of these exhaustive descriptions is equally eye-opening; you had no idea how much you were missing.) To describe colors, docents use the name of the color but also temperature and emotional words like "hot" and "passioante" to relate to people who have never seen color.

As in the seeing community, there's ample debate among people with vision loss over how art education should be done, Copeland said. Part of this is due to the fact that vision varies so much. You probably wouldn't know if you saw Copeland on the street that her vision is impaired; some of the other tour participants have different vision today than they did when they toured the Roman art at SAM a few years back due to macular degeneration. And then there are people with seeing-eye dogs on the tour, who may see shadows and light but not much else. Part of the debate: How should tours balance between describing the art that's right in front of people and describing what's behind the art that's right in front of them? The way you answer that question might depend on how well you can see.

Hjylimar Hinn is a Seattle artist and musician whose father is losing his sight as he ages. So Hinn made tactile versions of several Picasso paintings—braille paintings, essentially—and brought them on the tour. They were made of plywood, painted white, and almost life-size.

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Hinn carved Picasso's lines into the surfaces or laid them down on top in lines of resin. He didn't finish them all in time, which led to funny moments. Camille Jassny had already heard the verbal description of The Kiss when she began running her fingers along Hinn's version, and discovered a missing nipple. Jassny's face lit up when she ran her fingers over the male and female faces in the painting; she'd already been told about the discrepancy (typical!) between Picasso's giant male and tiny female faces, but now she felt it.

The next blind tour at SAM is scheduled for next month in the Northwest Coast native collections (more info here); if you notice it going on, I recommend trying to eavesdrop. You'll see more, too.

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