Other Ways of Seeing: Ice Age Art by the Blind

Professor John Kennedy theorises on the abilities and techniques of blind artists at Ulster Museum, with Japanese artist Eriko Watanabe

Whenever we talk about painting or drawing, sight is implied. Even though an artist like Degas suffered from cataracts – which might explain the delicious fuzziness of line in his later paintings of women bathing – the quality of the work is posited on a complete view of the world.

But Professor John M Kennedy, who is giving a lecture entitled 'Ways of Seeing and Touching: Ice Age Art and Pictures by the Blind' at the Ulster Museum on March 13 to mark 55 years of psychology at Queen's University, has spent most of his career researching the workings of what you might call the non visual arts. In other words, paintings and drawings by blind artists.

This may sound like some kind of April fool, but there's an intriguing rationale behind it. A Belfast man, Professor Kennedy (72), who studied at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution and then at Queen's University, says he chanced on his subject as an undergraduate.

 

'I read a book called Organization of Behaviour by Donald Hebb, a Canadian psychologist, in my second year, and it said some interesting things about our impressions of the world, in particular about foreground and background. Then, as a graduate student, I made up my own theory.'

Part of Kennedy's idea underlined the fact that the meeting points of perspective are tangible as well as visible. 'Lines in outline drawings stand for surface edges, some of which show a foreground against a background, some of which show two foreground surfaces meeting, for example at the corner of a building. As the surfaces and their edges can be felt, it's no wonder the blind can draw the same objects as the sighted.'

Kennedy has previously collaborated with the Japanese blind artist Eriko Watanabe. They met in 2007 when Kennedy was working at Salzburg University and encountered a local teacher, Elka Zollitsch, who was encouraging the Japanese artist to pursue her evocative drawings. Elka showed Kennedy some of Eriko's work.

'I was expecting a drawing of an ordinary object like a pencil,' Kennedy admits, 'but when I saw her work, I practically fell off my chair. She brought a suite of drawings that were fascinating but as a researcher, I had to ask questions and not get overenthusiastic.'

Yet Watanabe's ability shone out and some of her work will be on show at the Ulster Museum for a short period following Kennedy's talk. According to Kennedy, her drawings of Mexico – some of which will be on display at Queen's – went beyond any travelogue.

'Eriko went there with a drawing pad and produced a work called '17 drawings, My Impressions of Mexico'. She drew a glass of tequila with wavy lines, which she said showed the effects of the drink. Then she'd done a drawing of herself swimming with wavy lines suggesting the sea. But there was also a spider's web of lines coming from her fingers and toes.' These suggested the way her extremities tingled with pleasure in the water, echoing a lovely passage spoken by the blind heroine of Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney.

As the professor notes, he realised after seeing these drawings that Wanatabe (seen pictured below with Belfast Lord Mayor Mairtin O'Muilleoir) was 'a going concern'. Her work would be good for a sighted artist; in someone who lost her first eye at 11 months, and her second six months later to cancer of the eye, they're remarkable.

She has never seen anything clearly. This might stretch credulity, but when you realise the technique involved in producing a raised line via pen on plastic, which functions a bit like Braille, it makes sense.

 

Kennedy says that Northern Ireland is increasingly becoming a disabled-friendly part of the world. The Ulster Museum is, he says, in the vanguard. Kennedy's timeline of art history, which he will relate during his talk, starts with the ice age, when art was all about 'surface edges', then moves to Renaissance Italy and the discovery of perspective, when artists took a new vantage point with man the observer at the centre of things.

Then comes Thomas Berwick in early 19th century England, painting the wheels on a carriage with the spokes fanning out unrealistically to suggest movement. Kennedy describes this as the art as metaphor stage, which feeds into 20th century American comic book art.

As he says, unsighted artists follow that very trail. 'Blind people go through an ice age phase with lines and surface edges. Then, if they continue, they get to understand the vantage point like the Italians in the Renaissance and finally they gain metaphor, devices to suggest touch and smell.'

Watanabe's artistic mission statement makes the same point. She says she attempts 'to re-create what I experience with my senses other than my vision onto paper. These include tastes, smells, touch, the flow of time, temperature, space, emotions, atmosphere, feelings, fantasies, ideas, even my own imagination of colours and light.'

It's no surprise, perhaps, that blind artists work in colour. Turkish blind artist Esref Armagan, for example, has an exuberant palette that in his primitive landscapes suggest Hockney's giddy Californian phase and the Mulholland Drive series. He has to work with an assistant who will point him towards green or blue, and describe the exact shades to him.

This may be an academic subject, and Kennedy has published a lot on his topic, but it's also a real enthusiasm. He collects art and has quite a few Watanabe drawings at home in Toronto, 'on loan' as he points out so as not to compromise his academic impartiality. 'They'll be in galleries eventually.' It seems that the boy who was reprimanded when at Inst for drawing on the margins of his exercise books did the right thing in following his heart.

Ways of Seeing and Touching takes place in the Ulster Museum Lecture Theatre, Belfast at 5pm on Thursday, March 13 An exhibition of Eriko Watanabe's drawings continues in the museum until March 18.