Envisioning Arts

Sarah Stewart - Mar 14, 2018

Tags: Art    Education   
The following article authored by Envision Art Education Teacher Sarah Stewart appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Future Reflections magazine

From the Editor: For far too long, educators have regarded appreciation of the fine arts as a strictly visual experience. Blind and visually-impaired children have had few opportunities to explore and create art. Fortunately, a number of innovative educators, as well as blind artists themselves, are proving that participation in the arts is a matter of creative thinking rather than physical vision. In this article Sarah Stewart describes her involvement with Envision Arts, a program based in Wichita, Kansas. Currently she is pursuing an expressive arts certification through the Expressive Arts Florida Institute in Sarasota, Florida. She plans to incorporate new approaches into the Envision Arts program beginning in 2019, involving music, movement, and writing.

Two girls examine a dangling spider sculpture.As an artist, I have found a greater purpose for my life's work than ever before through Envision, Inc., a not-for-profit organization headquartered in Wichita, Kansas. Envision's mission is to improve the quality of life and to provide inspiration for people who are blind or visually impaired through employment, outreach, rehabilitation, education, and research. Art plays a remarkably large role at Envision, and the program serves as a model for others to follow. Parents especially need to be aware of the role art plays in the cognitive development and future success of blind and visually-impaired children.

For the past five years I have served as arts education teacher and artistic manager of Envision Arts. This program has seen unimaginable growth and success, and it has received recognition from our community and from sister organizations across the nation. Envision Arts began as an arts and crafts activity in our Eyes for Others literacy program. It has grown into an arts center serving over one hundred students of all ages, with nearly 3,500 contacts per year. We have launched an art-on-consignment retail program through which students can sell their work, and we have been recognized by the American Printing House for the Blind Insights Art Awards. Our students created more than forty works that are installed on the main floor of the Aloft Hotel in Wichita. Envision Arts is changing lives and transforming perceptions of what blind and low-vision individuals are capable of achieving.

Individualized Instruction
Throughout the year Envision Arts offers an inspiring environment that fosters independence through creative self-expression. Each class, regardless of the age group, is supported under this umbrella model. Each serves as a foundation upon which to build and expand as we address the individual needs, abilities, and aspirations of our students. Our teaching methods take an individualized approach to support positive change and growth. Incoming students are asked to define why they are here, what personal goals they wish to achieve, and what they expect from a creative arts program. Students referred to Envision Arts from the Envision Rehabilitation Center may be seeking opportunities to build new life skills or to resume a hobby they gave up due to loss of vision. Individuals who enroll in Envision Arts from outside our organization may be seeking ways to enhance their creative skills, meet new friends, and find a community with common ground. No matter what draws our participants to Envision Arts, we take every measure to ensure that we inspire them and improve their overall psychosocial health through creative self-expression.

Equal Access to Art Education
A boy creates the head of a deer with papier mâché.Envision Arts offers art and craft classes for adults and art classes designed for our youth and young-adult communities. Our after-school art programs for youth and young adults parallel those of an academic art education. We investigate art and cultural history, the principles and elements of design, conceptual and functional art, STEAM-inspired activities (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics), and current events. We allot plenty of open studio time for our students to express themselves freely through art.

Summer classes take us out of the classroom and into our community to find relationships between the work created in the studio and the art that adorns our public spaces, galleries, and museums. Envision Arts is committed to finding teachable moments and opportunities for inclusion, making every effort to provide the fundamental art education that is available to sighted students.

The attendance at and growth of our after-school program testifies to the value of the creative process for children with vision loss. The students express unfiltered excitement for creative exploration. They are eager to build, learn, and grow.

According to the International Child Art Foundation (icaf.org), "Research indicates that a child who is exposed to the arts acquires a special ability to think creatively, be original, discover, innovate, and create intellectual property—key attributes for individual success and social prosperity in the twenty-first century." The parents or guardians of children with vision loss want their children to receive the same quality education and access to resources that are available to their sighted peers.

When we deny children creative outlets through music, writing, and the fine arts, we withhold essential nutrients from their development. We leave them without the means to express their thoughts, ideas, and emotions safely and effectively. Nonetheless, some educators believe that children with vision loss receive little to no value by studying art.

Curriculum Building
Before I became the art educator at Envision Arts, I taught drawing, design, and sculpture at two universities in Kansas. Earning a master's in fine arts (MFA) with an emphasis in sculpture, I had experience with many media and a variety of creative processes and tools. My background prepared me for this calling through which I get to share my knowledge and passion for art with a community that is hungry for creative resources. Along my educational journey I acquired and stored multiple project ideas and detailed curricula. I draw upon these resources as I develop the syllabus and goals for each semester.

However, I cannot claim that I was fully prepared for the challenges of adapting projects and reworking steps to accommodate students with various skill sets and levels of vision. In 2015 I came across a powerful and effective teacher resource guide that has given me the direction and the confidence I needed, the VSA International Organization on Arts and Disability Art Education Guide. The guide can be found in the Department of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts: http://education.kennedy-center.org/education/#access. Jean Kennedy Smith founded VSA more than thirty-five years ago to provide arts and education opportunities for people with disabilities and to increase access to the arts for all.

Conclusion
I'd like to encourage parents and guardians to consider the benefits children will gain by attending art classes, music lessons, and sports programs such as martial arts and track and field. Seek out activities in the community that your child may find interesting. Many community art centers offer mixed-media art classes. Such classes can provide tactile and multisensory activities as well as valuable social engagement skills. Call your local art center and describe your child's interest in art making. Explain how she or he will benefit from creative exploration. Most likely you will secure your child a spot in the next art class.

When we seek ways to ensure that all children are included, we inform and educate our neighbors about the abilities of people who are blind or have low vision. We show that we as human beings have more similarities than differences.

Ad Astra per Aspera is the state motto of Kansas. It means, "To the stars through difficulty." Coined by John James Ingalls in 1861, the state's motto reflects that "the aspiration of Kansas is to reach the unattainable; its dream is the realization of the impossible." There is no better way for me to describe the spirit of my students and the many blind and visually-impaired coworkers with whom I have the pleasure of working. In times of great uncertainty they continue to defy low expectations day after day.