by Christine Cayer
An exquisitely detailed mermaid. An imposing castle. An ornate bowl. A voluptuous woman. All of these works of art are sculpted by blind and vision-impaired adults in the Vision Thru Art class at the Allens Lane Art Center in Mt. Airy, a class of 12 with a wait list. The class, now in its 26th year, is “well known all along the East Coast,” says Betsy, a long-term member of the class.
No wonder there is a waiting list. This, the Art Center is currently hoping to raise enough money to fund another section of the 33-week class to start in the fall. Laura, a new student, had to practically beg to be “squeezed in” after hearing her friend rave about the class. During class, the long table in the Fluhr Studio, named for the late Bob Fluhr, who taught the class as a volunteer for many years until his health failed, is filled to capacity with the students’ projects, their supplies and any objects that they might be modeling.
The class is taught by Jackie Walther, who has a MFA in ceramics from Virginia Commonwealth University. Jackie had not taught students with any type of disability before applying for this job last fall. After her interview, she sat in on the class, and “I knew that I really wanted this job”, she said. “The students are so creative, and they like to have a good time!” (I can attest to this after crashing their Valentine’s Day party, where students, with cupcakes in hand, were dancing to music more likely to be heard in a zumba class than a ceramics class.)
The class is partially underwritten by the Philadelphia Foundation’s Esther and Sidney Kulick Memorial Fund. The Kulicks were involved at the Art Center in a big way for many years, and their support has been critical. Tuition for the class had been “pay what you can” during the Bob Fluhr days, but that was somewhat cumbersome. Then for a while there was a modest charge for the class.
Last year, Craig Stover, director of the Allens Lane Art Center, decided to make the class free for all students. “Some students are on fixed incomes, and I didn’t want the cost to keep people away.” To add another class, $10,000 will be needed to cover instruction costs and supplies for a year. The Allens Lane Art Center is a non-profit 501 c(3) organization, so all donations are tax-deductible.
For many of the students, it is the highlight of their week. Some have been attending for as long as 20 years, so students have developed long-standing friendships. It shows. There is serious instruction going on here, though; it’s not all fun. The long timers are learning things from Jackie that they had not learned before — how to make ‘slabs’ and then sculpt with them, how to make an enlarged version of an object from the bottom up, how to glaze.
Some of the students have an art background. Mike was a graphic artist, and Ron was a chef who made ice and food sculptures; others, like Frank, became artists after losing their sight. Jackie has had to be creative with her instruction. “Some of the students are blind, some can see a little, some can see color, others cannot. Some have been vision-impaired since birth, and others became vision-impaired because of accidents or disease,” said Jackie, who has had to adapt teaching techniques knowing the vision limitations of each student.
Jackie has an apprentice, Shaie Briggs, an intern at the Center. There are also dedicated volunteers, some who sculpt themselves. One, Evelyn, said, “I have learned more from these students in my eight years as a volunteer than I ever learned working on my own in my studio.”
Another volunteer, Tom, said he loves being there and that “I get more from them than they [the students] get from me.” Other volunteers are friends or relatives of the students, and double as their means of transportation to the class. Laura’s mother, Lois, brings a few students each week. Lois, obviously proud of her daughter, who lost much of her sight to diabetes as a child, sometimes has to be reprimanded by Laura for talking about her so much. “Remember, it’s $1 every time you talk about me”, she jokes. Laura must have quite a bit in her cookie jar by now.
Every three years the class mounts an exhibit in the Alber Gallery at the Center. The last exhibit, in 2014, traveled to Philadelphia’s City Hall gallery for several months, evidence of the quality of the work produced by these vision-impaired adults.
For more information, including a video about the class, or to make a tax-deductible donation towards the additional class, call 215-248-0546 or visit www.allenslane.org.
Ed. Note: Christine Cayer lives in Glenside and volunteers as a writer for the Allens Lane Art Center and its theater. We were asked to leave out the last names of the students and volunteers.