by Brenda Lange
From the tiny sesame seeds sprinkled on top of the bun to the meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato nestled beneath, Dana Koerber’s papier-mâché cheeseburger looks nearly good enough to bite into. And yes, there are fries with that, a large McDonald’s bag overflowing with fries that she created in the Vision Thru Art program at the Allens Lane Art Center in Mt. Airy.
For about 13 years, the 47-year-old Chalfont resident has traveled to Philadelphia with one of her parents – first to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the Friday program originated – and for the last three years to the Center on Allens Lane to make art from clay, papier-mâché and found objects and to create friendships with others from the area who, like Koerber, are completely blind or to some degree visually impaired.
“Adrienne (program instructor, Adrienne Justice) gave us the assignment to do something food-related, and I wanted to make a steak but couldn’t figure out how, so I did this,” Koerber said, smiling and holding the bag of fries.
Koerber first learned of the program through a friend from the Overbrook School for the Blind and fell in love working with clay. Many of her creations grace her parents’ home, where she lives on weekends – elephants, horses and decorative items such as vases and bowls.
During the last day of the course at the end of May, Koerber’s mother joined the group for a pizza lunch and explained her daughter’s deep devotion to the sculpting process.
“Having her hands in clay, being immersed in it, allows her [to have] control,” said Kathie Koerber. “Blindness is isolating, and sighted people don’t understand that if a blind person is not touching something, it’s as if it’s not really there.
“This program is invaluable to people who can be so isolated … we who can see take it for granted. Here, they get to be creative and productive; they socialize and find acceptance on all levels,” she added, explaining that her daughter has been blind since birth due to a rare genetic disorder.
Vision Thru Art was started at the Center in 1988 with one class on Wednesdays. As the Philadelphia Museum of Art began its major renovation program in 2016, the two Friday classes held there required a new home and found one on Allens Lane. The participants and dedicated volunteers have been trekking to Mt. Airy for a little more than three years.
Grace Thompson, 74, whose vision is failing from glaucoma that affects her optic nerve, loves the variety of working in different elements. Unlike Koerber, who has loved making art since she was a child, Thompson says she had never been very artistic but learned how creative she can be, even though a good portion of her vision is gone.
“I put my all into it, and it depends on the project, although lately my favorite has been clay,” Thompson said, adding that she recently completed a kitchen caddy. “I’m surprised many times by what I have created.” And the social aspect of these Fridays is not lost on Thompson, who calls her fellow artists “an extension of family. We all have some visual challenge and can relate to one another. We’re a community.”
The program is not art therapy, but rather a place for artists to make art. Many of the participants enter their work in shows, win awards and sometimes sell what they create. The center takes a professional approach, reinforced by instructor Adrienne Justice, a working ceramics artist who studied at the Pratt Institute and currently is pursuing her master’s in art education for special populations at Moore College of Art.
“This is a working studio,” she said. “For the most part, the participants consider themselves working artists, and the program is about meeting them where they are. I find out what their goals are and how I can best support them, both in their art practice and as a person with a visual impairment.”
Vision Thru Art has provided art instruction for 35 years at the center, which was founded in 1954. Currently about 40 students work on different projects throughout the year, except during the summer months when the program is on hiatus.
In 2014, the center realized that since many of the participants were on limited, fixed incomes, the center would provide the classes and all materials free-of-charge. Funding was provided for the Wednesday classes by The Esther and Sidney Kulick Memorial Fund of The Philadelphia Foundation. Due to some loss of previous funding for the Friday programs, the center now relies on individual donations for those participants.
“We need to raise about $10,000 a year to keep it going,” said executive director Craig Stover, who has been with the center for 11 years and is himself a painter, sculptor and printmaker. The goal was met last year through a Kickstarter campaign, and Stover is repeating that type of campaign this year in addition to reaching out through social media and the center’s website. They also have applied for several grants. “This program is a lifeline for many of our participants,” Stover said.
“It’s so important to keep this program going,” said Justice. “If there is not a space and time set aside for these artists to create and make art, we as a community in Philadelphia are going to lose their unique voices. We’re an artistic city that appreciates art. They have a lot to teach us.”
Like Thompson, Rhonda Gray-Upsey, 47, of Upper Darby likes to create functional art. In 2010 she lost her vision completely for a year due to intercranial hypertension. After surgery, she regained some vision but still lacks peripheral vision and has limited depth perception. One of her favorite projects is a toilet paper holder she made from a tall branch that she wrapped in electrician’s tape, added wire branches, taped up and then glued on individual green and blue strands of curling ribbon. “I call this one ‘Toiletry,’” she said.
One special piece is titled “End Violence” and has been displayed at the Art Museum of Philadelphia. She carved a gun from wood, mounted a bullet to the end and aimed it at a large, papier-mâché hand (with multi-colored fingers to represent various races). The piece includes a clay person sprawled on the ground with a blood-red stain on its shirt. Yellow caution tape outlines the scene, and a poem she wrote about peace and coexistence is adhered at the back.
Sue Flem’s creativity usually emerges through ceramics, which she enjoys most of all. “My thing is doing my own thing,” she said as she showed off several photos of a clay rainbow and figures of elephants, horses and dogs. Flem, 56, said that creativity runs in her family; her grandmother worked with ceramics and sometimes sold her artwork to help support the family. Flem lost most of her vision due to a brain tumor she had as a teenager.
“That didn’t stop me, though.”
Flem has participated for at least 10 years and would love to someday sell some of her work online.
“The participants are part of a diverse population brought together by the art-making and their visual impairment – two unifying factors,” said Justice, “but each one has a unique perspective, which makes working with them very interesting. Their visual impairment generally takes a back seat while they’re in the class, and they have the chance to operate from another part of their senses, making things that are so beautiful.”
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