Blind art is fine art

iMPULSE reporter, Colleen Reid spoke to Margaret Simpson, an Art teacher at the Royal Blind School, about teaching blind and visually impaired people how to create works of art.

Tell me a bit about your job.

My job is probably the most creative I’ve ever had as an art teacher. I have to think of ways that the pupils can access art, we all think of art as being a visual experience and for our pupils paper and pencil, sometimes paint, is no good. They have to find ways of doing their art work which is three dimensional or tactile. The standard pencil and paper that most art rooms use is no good.

We don’t do an awful lot of certificated work because some of it, especially at intermediate and higher levels, is very difficult for our pupils. We have to think of ways for them to do things and some of the quirkiness comes from their different approach to what they see.

How does your job differ from a typical teaching job?

We have to find ways that are non visual to access art. The general way of teaching at the Royal Blind School sees the children using mostly Braille and sometimes they use vocal recordings. They have a lot of talking equipment such as talking microwaves in the home economics room. They’ve also got sensors in cups for when pouring out hot liquids that beep when full. Our pupils are able to take part in a range of activities such as playing football but they play it with a noisy ball instead. They way that our pupils access information is different to typical schools but the sheer energy and enthusiasm they have mirrors all children and is brilliant to see.

How did you go from an art teacher to an art teacher to the visually impaired?

I went from working as an art teacher to doing some work with pupils who had additional needs after having my children. From there I did a course at Edinburgh University which was about children with special needs accessing the curriculum and the ways that they could keep up with a normal class. After that I remember seeing an advert in the paper for the Royal Blind School and just knowing I would get it with the additional course I had taken. It really is one of the nicest jobs I’ve ever had and I think I got this job because of the fact that I am a qualified art teacher with the additional ability to teach children with significant other needs.

The Royal Blind School also has another campus at Canaan Lane, does your teaching differ between campuses?

The pupils at Canaan are what we call MDVI (multi disabled visually impaired) so a lot of those pupils are in wheelchairs and have a whole lot of medical needs. Often they can’t communicate so an awful lot of what we do there is called experiential art. They aren’t doing the work alone, you’re actually doing the work with them and sometimes you’ll work hand over hand. We have a lot of singing activities, like when your spreading on glue, you’ll be holding their hand and singing: “this way that way, this way that way, this way that way, sticky glue.” The pupils have very little input into how the art work looks, they might make choices like nodding to signify that they want a yellow rather than a blue colour but you’re doing art with them as opposed to them doing it themselves. We also do a lot of clay work at Craigmillar, however the pupils over at Canaan will often eat it. Although it doesn’t do them any harm!

The Canaan stuff is very different but within that context we still aim for a finished product that looks good but the root that we get there sometimes is a bit diverse.

Is the pupils art work ever displayed for public viewing?

The pupils here range from totally blind to moderately visually impaired and we’ve won the Fringe poster competition twice and came runner up twice. Each bit that the pupils do is considered and thought about and the rest of the class talk about each other’s work sharing constructive criticism. The first pupil that won the competition spoke very eloquently about how he made the poster and he actually was interviewed by famous comedian, Fred MacCauly. Fred asked him about how he had gotten perspective into his drawing. The pupil said, “Well Mrs Simpson shouted in my ear very close up and asked if it was a big voice or a little voice. She then went across to the other side of the room and asked again if it was a big voice or a little voice. The one in my ear was much bigger and louder so I knew that when you go into the distance things get smaller.”

Another of the fringe posters that we did very well with was the end result of a creative mishap. The girl had done a lovely drawing but she wasn’t supervised when she was gluing the drawing onto the background. She actually stuck half of it to the table but that was what made it a really good design. It was off centered, where as her intentions were to have it right the centre so the fact that it was squint really added to the design.

At the end of each poster I get the pupils to talk about it because sometimes what they’ve done is very good and I often worry that folk will think ‘ooh they’ve had a lot of help with that one’ but generally they haven’t. I try not to alter their work because they would be annoyed and it’s really not something I could do without them knowing.

What makes you love your job?

It’s great fun because the children here and the young people have got a different attitude to the visual arts and they can think up different things using alternative approaches.

They are incredibly inventive children, good at problem solving and very enthusiastic which makes my job very rewarding.

Words and photography by Colleen Reid

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