James Castle Sculpture and Drawing Series

The Ohio State University's Urban Art Space is currently hosting an exhibition featuring the works of renowned Outsider artist,James Castle. In conjunction with this powerful exhibition, the Urban Arts Space offered workshops for educators and the general public on different aspects of the show. Curated by Disability Studies professor, Dr. Brenda Brueggemann, the exhibition takes a close look at Castle's work and how his identity as a Deaf artist shines through his imagery. Below are a few highlights of one workshop in particular that VSA Ohio staff were fortunate enough to attend.

Series of books made by the artist (left) and VSA Ohio's Director, Erin Hoppe, working on describing a piece(right). 

Led by Dr. Brueggemann, the audio description workshop guided participants through the basics of audio description using Castle's massive body of work as examples and "test" pieces of art. Brueggemann began by leading a tour of the works so that participants had an understanding of both his life and work. The exhibition as a whole was broken up into different categories as Brueggemann selected smaller bodies of work that seemed to originate from similar time periods or similar movements within Castle's life. 

The wall text containing Brueggemann's curator statement.
If you have never heard of audio description,it is technically defined as an additional narration track for consumers of visual media with blindness or visual impairment(Wikipedia definition(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audio_description). For an art exhibition, this means that viewers and attendees are provided with audio descriptions of the pieces and gallery spaces that constitute the exhibit.  This allows for visitors with visual impairment to experience the art in an alternative format as well as for all visitors to gain another perspective on the art they see before them.

Some of the basics of audio description that were covered in the workshop include:
What You See Is What You Say (WYSIWYS) This is a helpful acronym that reminds the audio describer exactly what they are to be doing when providing audio description. This is also a reminder that one should try and avoid presenting judgments or opinions within a description (which is quite difficult to do). The workshop facilitator stressed that it is important to focus on what is in front of you, not the connotations or references an image may be making.
Colors are important
Whether the person you are working with has visual impairment that is part of a lifelong condition or something that occurred later in life, color is an important indicator to use when describing an image. Colors often carry significant meaning when it comes to messages within images and leaving out this information can be detrimental to the viewer’s understanding of the image.
Background information is helpful
Whether it is a performance, gallery exhibit, or other cultural experience, providing the viewer with background information such as program text, schedule of events, cast lists etc. is also important so that the viewer has a context for what you are about to describe. For visual art, this can be as simple as reading the exhibition introduction or curator’s statement to the viewer or sharing some information with them that you see on display in the gallery space.
For visual art or stage productions, make sure you use a consistent system of directions for describing spatial relationships to the viewer. If you are describing visual art and you start from the left side of a piece, try to maintain that system when describing other pieces. For theatrical experiences, be sure you clarify if something is happening stage right or stage left in relation to where the viewer is seated or standing.
General to specific
When describing a piece of art, start in a general sense and work your way “inward” towards specific details. This could mean that you start describing the area or space in which the piece is located followed by the kind of frame or pedestal it is housed in. You could also talk about the general method the artist employs before discussing specific details of the marks or materials that make up the piece.
Don’t make assumptions about the viewer’s knowledge. Approach the description with terminology and vocabulary that are accessible and define new terms you intend to use throughout the describing.
Appropriate references. When possible, try to use tactile, spatial, and auditory analogies. Using visual references and analogies will not be as significant to a viewer with visual impairment or blindness.

For more reading on this exhibit from another viewer’s perspective, check out a blog post about the exhibit written by friend and longtime supporter of VSA Ohio, Chris Bowsman. Don’t foprget to check out the show and experience it for yourself! The OSU Urban Arts Space is located at 50 West Town Street, Columbus, OH 43215. They are open Tuesday-Saturday from 11-6pm and open late on Thursdays until 8pm