Lisa Johnson and her husband, Jeremy, came from different worlds.
Jeremy is an artist, professor of art education at UNO and the director of the Center for Innovation in Arts Education. He paints and draws comics.
Lisa, director of student support services at Nebraska Methodist College, was born blind.
Last September, they started a project that would bring their worlds together and make art more accessible.
“I couldn’t see the art when we visited museums, and I couldn’t really experience it,” Lisa said. “And I know that visual art is really important to him.”
They helped create an exhibition, “Sensory: Please Touch the Art,” which debuted this month at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. The UNO Art Gallery holds a collection of 63 exhibition pieces, including sculptures, pictures, drawings and weavings. The Johnsons also hosted art workshops over the summer that focused on teaching sensory art-making to visually impaired people, and many of the pieces created are included in the show.
“I was expecting something small, to be honest,” said Molly Troxel, a participant in the art workshops. “I didn’t think it was going to be this big or this cool. I think they really outdid themselves with the art descriptions and the Braille. I was expecting something that was not this much because usually people don’t really recognize that stuff. It makes me feel happy because someone gets it.”
Every aspect of the gallery was tailored to be accessible. Along the walls hang cards written in Braille, and there are audio push buttons that read some of the descriptions. Pieces of PVC pipes sit below art to signal to someone walking with a cane where each display is. MP3 players and headphones sit in mounted pockets near the three gallery rooms to provide guided audio tours. Even the promotional cards sent out to announce the exhibition included Braille.
“She’s never been to a museum where she could touch this many exhibits in a row,” said Jean Loberg, who explored the gallery on Saturday with her daughter, Maura, who is blind. “I never have to tell her ‘don’t touch it’ — that’s accepted here, and it’s wonderful. There’s such a nice variety, it’s not just one type. ... I’m very proud of UNO for doing this.”
The Lobergs drove two hours from their home in Wayne, Nebraska, to participate in an event at Outlook Nebraska Inc., a nonprofit that provides services and jobs to people who are blind or visually impaired. After the event, they toured the gallery.
Jean said the experience was incredible and was the first of its kind that they had been able to attend so close to home.
Maura said, “I have no vision whatsoever, so it’s definitely harder for me to enjoy some forms of art, such as drawing or painting. ... We usually go to art museums, and I kind of gave up on art museums because a lot of them are just like ‘Do not touch!’ and we would disobey them and touch them anyway.”
The UNO exhibition was curated by Jamie Burmeister, an artist and art instructor at Metropolitan Community College.
The Johnsons began planning the gallery exhibit last September, but they came up with the idea to host workshops in March.
“It just started making sense since we’re making the gallery so accessible to just go all the way and have some of the art made by the visually impaired,” Jeremy said.
Each workshop focused on working with a different medium and empowering the artists to make work that was appealing to them.
“A lot of the time, visually impaired people think that they’re not able to make art because they can’t view art, and that’s kind of a stereotype,” Lisa said. “For me, it was really exciting to be able to make something in the workshops alongside the other participants. We know that we have talent, but it goes unrecognized.”
The workshops had 17 consistent participants after the first session.
“I didn’t know what to expect; none of us knew what to expect,” said Katie Larson, a participant with limited vision who has three pieces of art displayed in the gallery.
Larson said her previous experiences with art during school had been frustrating because she felt unable to do some of the things that her classmates could do. The workshops, she said, were empowering and allowed her to connect with others who had faced similar barriers related to traditional ideas of art.
Troxel said that at school, the teachers’ lessons are more visual and they modified them for her. “With the workshop,” she said, “it was tactile and everybody understood that we couldn’t see. But at school, not everybody gets that.”
Jeremy and Lisa said they focused on creating a “safe space” for participants to explore art and be openly creative. The six-hour workshops were held in Jeremy’s classroom at UNO. He taught three of the classes himself.
“It’s very powerful and beneficial to look at my own teaching and learn to be more descriptive so I can teach students new ways to introduce concepts so that they can create their own accessible classrooms someday,” he said.
The project was started with the help of Denise Brady, UNO’s gallery coordinator. They began to reach out to local organizations to support the project, and the idea gained momentum quickly.
WhyArts, Outlook Nebraska, the Omaha Association of the Blind and UNO’s Network for Disability Awareness helped the project with financial, outreach or volunteer support.
A grant from WhyArts allowed for Ann Cunningham, a tactile artist and instructor at the Colorado Center for the Blind, to visit and lecture at the gallery’s opening.
Nearly 200 people crowded the gallery on Oct. 6 for the opening, making it one of UNO’s largest Thursday night gallery openings. Jeremy said the room was buzzing with excitement.
“It was nice to see the two different communities coming together,” he said. “One was used to interacting with art but only in a visual way, and it was interesting to see how some of them were sort of uncomfortable touching the art. And then there are the visually impaired, many who have never had the opportunity to come to a gallery opening and to access or experience art.”
“Our goal was to eliminate all barriers for anyone who wanted to participate in the workshop, and a big barrier for the visually impaired is transportation,” Lisa said.
The Johnsons plan to seek more funding to continue the project. They hope that UNO will continue to partner with their efforts to make art accessible.
“I would like to see UNO become a leader in this area,” Lisa said. “It is a very positive thing for the university to acknowledge accessibility.”