Displaying folk art with feeling BMA gives visitors hands-on experience

September 20, 1990|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,Special to The Evening Sun

If you've ever read an art review and finished it griping that the critic must have gone through the exhibit with his eyes closed, below is a review about which you'd be absolutely right. In fact, this critic would be the first to agree with you.

"Access to Art: Bringing Folk Art Closer" is an exhibit designed to present folk art to those who are visually impaired or who have other physical handicaps that hinder their ability to enjoy the usual museum installation. Organized by the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City, this exhibit is currently at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of a 13-city national tour.

Unlike most museum shows, in which your conscience -- and the guards -- discourage you from touching the artwork, here you're really encouraged to gently touch the quilts, furniture, decoys and other artwork.

Indeed, the objects were selected for their "tactile interest," according to exhibit curator Irma J. Shore. She adds that folk art is especially effective for such a presentation because "it speaks directly to a lot of people and is not as mysterious as other art can be."

Although this exhibit is designed with impaired visitors in mind, all museum-goers can take advantage of this as a hands-on experience. So let this folk art speak directly to your hands. First give your hands the handy-wipe treatment with the damp paper towels provided at the exhibit entrance, and then, with your hands as pure as your curiosity, you'll be ready to "see" the show.

Once inside, you'll note that there are several ways in which the exhibit is geared in particular to the visually impaired. Why not actually close your eyes, plug yourself into the audiotape tour, and hear word pictures of what you can touch but cannot see? Or open your eyes just enough to consider the wall texts printed in large print and Braille. Likewise, notice the large black-and-white photographs of the art objects placed next to them, which enable those with limited visual perception to scan the photos up close. Also, notice how the oblong blocks known as cane markers are placed against the wall under most objects, enabling a visually impaired person's cane to stop at the right spot.

Another way to consider the show is from the perspective of somebody in a wheelchair (as I did for a few minutes). From this vantage point, you notice how the exhibit tables and object labels are placed at a convenient height.

My eyes closed for much of the time I spent in this exhibit -- well, OK, I peeked fairly often -- I discovered pieces through their textures and contours. A dramatically carved carousel horse made around 1910, for instance, came vividly to life through inquisitive stroking: its real horsehair tail was slick, its glass eye proved beady and cold, and its open mouth was an open invitation to run my hand along its teeth and tongue for a genuine amusement park thrill.

Other sculpted pieces offer similar exploratory pleasures. There is a broad-backed wooden swan decoy made in Cape Hatteras in the early 20th century. There is the wood statue of a lumberjack holding an ax and jug that once served as an advertising "sign." And there is the sand cast concrete head of an "Unknown Disciple," by a contemporary American folk artist from Georgia, the Rev. Howard Finster, in which the rough surface of the material makes for a bumpy ride as you run your hand across the sculpted head's features.

Among other objects for your hand to discover, the most eccentric is an ingenious Bottle Cap Snake made by New Mexican artist Ron Rodriguez in 1985, in which bottle caps tightly lined up on a string form the snake's body. One of the most educational objects in terms of design is a Shaker rocking chair made in New York between 1890 and 1920, because your hand can run along its spare mahogany frame and then run across its fabric seat, sensing the red and black checkerboard pattern of the cloth even if it isn't seen or is barely seen.

Of the objects in this mini-survey of American folk art, only one may not be touched. A mid-19th century painting of a "Child with Guitar," attributed to the New England artist Erastus Salisbury Field, is protected by Plexiglas. But even those who cannot see this painting will hear about it on the tape and will, one hopes, come away from it with an imaginative feel for the directness and decorative vigor of folk art.

"Access to Art: Bringing Folk Art Closer" remains at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Nov. 11. For details, call 396-6310.

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