Thursday, September 15, 2011

At Tennessee School for the Blind, students discover art as path to self-expression

From The Tennessean. In the picture, Sara Grannenann puts the finishing touches on a drawing at Tennessee School for the Blind.

Ashley Jackson is completely blind and almost totally deaf, but her world is not dark and silent.

Light, color, textures, shapes — all things she’s never seen — flow into the clay sculptures she creates.

“I didn’t choose to be blind and deaf, but I accept it,” Jackson said. “With sculptures I feel stronger.”

Jackson, a 19-year-old boarding student from Chattanooga, attends the Tennessee School for the Blind in Donelson. Her work is among 20 to 30 pieces of artwork from the school on display through Sept. 30 at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.

“Without art, I’d feel isolated, apart from the world,” said Jackson, who speaks clearly after receiving a sign language question through touch on her lower arm.

“I don’t want to hide in the world of a deaf and blind person. I like to express myself.”

More than half of the School for the Blind’s 149 students are enrolled in art classes, directed by Monica Leister, who is not visually impaired.

She was teaching other subjects, including daily life skills at the state school for all grade levels, when asked to jump-start the art program about 13 years ago.

“Art is almost a therapeutic way for our students to express themselves, but we correlate projects with what they are learning in the classroom,” Leister said. “It has structure and it’s a form of self-expression. I think it is a great tool for building self-esteem.”

Low-vision student Emily Green, a sophomore, created a Pittsburgh Steelers pottery bowl for the exhibition, a prelude to Art Beyond Sight Awareness Month in October.

“I have a lot of outlets, but art is my favorite,” Green said. “I tend to be very perceptive because I don’t see as well, and that makes me look harder. It makes me pay attention more to texture (and) the atmosphere around it.”

Blind since birth, Jackson began sculpting as a ninth-grader, giving it a try out of a fondness for playing with Play-Doh as a young girl.

Some of Jackson’s sculptures show relationships, including the bond between a mother and child, as well as other life experiences. A sculpture of a mother who finds an abandoned baby sold for $250 at the school’s annual auction. The sculpture at the library is of a mother holding a baby, and Jackson says she hopes her relationship with her own mother will continue to improve.

“It’s a tool for her to express her thoughts and feelings,” Leister said of Jackson’s work. “It’s really unique. She can’t see a face, she has to feel a face. I’m amazed at the details she has. Her sculptures are very stylized. And she’s discovered pottery.”

Jackson will travel to Louisville, Ky., to receive an award for a self-portrait sculpture from the American Printing House for the Blind. The portrait will be on display at the organization’s national exhibit. Another School for the Blind art student, Alexandria Williams, will be honored for painting in an elementary school division.

Art will always be part of Jackson’s life, she said, but motivational speaking interests her. She’s been out front as a speaker at several area schools. She’s planning for college in her future, possibly to study child psychology or sociology.

Now in its second year, the School for the Blind’s display at the state library was organized with assistance from the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, which is part of the state library.

The library provides audio, braille and large print books along with other services for residents unable to read standard print because of visual or physical disabilities.

The centerpiece of the school’s display is the school’s mascot named Dot — a paper mache tiger made from scraps of braille paper created by a past class. Dot is now a permanent display at the state library.

“It’s an opportunity not many high-vision students have,” Green said of the display. “It almost makes it seem like an appreciation.”