A feeling for art
Art can be fun for the nose. Students take turns smelling a heart-shaped box filled with dried flower petals. The question of how blind people could experience art got a group of artists thinking-and doing-and the results speak for themselves

Story By Nilubol Pornpitagpan Pictures by YINGYONG UN-ANONGRAK
From Bangkok Post Newspaper on May 29, 2001

"This smells wonderful!" a young blind woman exclaimed, sniffing a heart-shaped box full of dried flower petals affixed to a wooden panel.
"It smells like strawberry jelly." Standing next to her was a friend, whose fingers were tracing another decoration attached to the panel. "It's a sunflower," she suggested. She was right.Charuni Daengthongdi and Amornrat Watnoi and their friends from the Bangkok School for the Blind were exploring an exhibition called "Touching Art" currently being staged at the Goethe Institute Bangkok. It's a joint exhibition in which blind students display their works along with pieces specially designed for them by professional artists, who employed engraving or bas-relief techniques. Some added scents and sounds. In another corner of the exhibition, three boys explored an iron plate engraved with a spiral design. "It's like a bus stop sign," said the first boy.
"It's a snail," the second boy suggested.
The third went a bit further with his imagination. "It's like a satellite," he declared.
How do blind people explore and appreciate art? That was the question a group of six graduate students from Silpakorn University asked themselves last year before setting out to find the answer.
"It came about during a leisurely discussion we had one evening," said Pongpan Chantanamattha, a sculptor and leader of the group.
"We would often hang out after class, discussing both serious and not-so-serious subjects. Then someone began talking about art perception. Since our first sense of art is through the eyes, we have the words 'visual art', don't we? We wondered how blind people could approach art without seeing it," Pongpan said.
They began discussing the matter-and would not let it go."Just talking about it brought no results. So we decided we'd better take some action," said print artist Yuwana Punwattanawit, another member of the group, which includes Nopporn Supapipat, Parut Marod, Phanu Saruaysuwan and Watanee Sriwattananantakoon.
They contacted the Bangkok School for the Blind and offered an art class for interested students on Sundays, to last four months, from June through September, last year.
The project attracted about 20 students aged 10 to 18, and the artists learned quickly that they had many misconceptions about people with visual impairments.
"Like most people, I thought I would meet kids who were unhappy, or had problems-how wrong I was!
They were cute. They acted like other children their age, talkative, full of humour, eager to be friend people" said Parut.
Yuwana couldn't agree more. "For some reason, people tend to think that blind people are helpless. But we discovered this wasn't so. Some families don't encourage them to be active-they just keep them at home. But in fact, they can live like everybody else," Yuwana said.
"The students had no problem expressing themselves at all. They were eager and more than happy to learn.
They just needed some stimulation and some guidelines and facilities," Pongpan said.
The students enjoyed the class. "The class was fun. I enjoyed it very much," said Hataipachara Mamaen, who sacrificed her Sunday to attend the extra class out of interest. "The artists introduced many materials for us to work with, which were different from our normal classes. What I loved most was we had full freedom to do whatever our imaginations suggested."
"The students were good at moulding. They produced subjects from things they are used to using or familiar with in daily life, like animals and fruits. Sometimes, they added special touches to beautify their sculptures.
But as for painting, they didn't know what shapes or patterns they were creating with their brushes. They asked us for the colours they wanted and worked on their own. Even so, the brush strokes quite often made for impressive abstract work," Pongpan said.
Using the mind to feel and see. In addition to painting, the students did sculptures in clay and papier mache, wax, seeds and threads and other objects."I didn't think my work was any good. At the review session after the class, I made up some stories to go along with my work. But the artists said there was beauty in everything we created. That was encouraging," said Hataipachara.
In fact, the six teachers were so impressed with their students' work they wanted the public to view it too.
"Their work was so wonderful we thought their hidden talents should be made public, that the public should see it," Pongpan said. Parut added: "We also wanted our project to inspire people in other fields to establish activities for the blind." An exhibition of the blind students' work was held at Suan Pakkad Palace last October.
"The artists' project is laudable. It helps bring out the hidden talents of blind students. We know our students are capable but the problem is how to showcase it. We need more projects of this kind," said Renu Duandao, the principal of the Bangkok School for the Blind.
"We never expected our work would be displayed at an exhibition. We were excited about it," said Hataipachara.
The success inspired the group to continue their efforts on behalf of the visually impaired. Earlier this year, they called upon their artist friends to create works designed for the blind, which they put together with the students' works for the current "Touching Art" exhibition.
The show has been an education for both the blind and the artists too, who learned that art was more than skin-deep. "The art class helped us to get to know the inner life of the students. The way they painted or carved clearly showed their mood. Strong and violent moves indicated frustration while moderate and delicate lines showed calmness," said Thanchanok Limprasert, an art teacher at the Bangkok School for the Blind.
Thongyoi Chiangthong, another art teacher, agreed. "Arts and crafts help tame a restless soul. Those who become blind later on in life are more aggressive while they make the transition from sight to lack of sight. But through art, they learn to calm down," Thongyoi said.
The project was also eye-opening for the artists who supplied some of the works. "Some of the works shown were outstanding," said Thitigon Boonyakiat, a painter. "It was really nice to participate. Artists don't do this kind of thing. We cage ourselves off in our own worlds. Creating this artwork for the blind helped us to get out of that world, to look out for others, for society."
After exploring the exhibition, most girls said they loved the heart box piece the most-the heart motif was also very prevalent in their own work.
Any special reason for this? "Yes! We love the 'heart' shape. Why? I think the heart represents happiness and love," said a happy Hataipachara, whose name means "diamond heart".She hopes the art classes will continue."If [the artists] offer their class again, I'll surely attend. And I hope the younger students get the same chance as I did."
Since she loves art, does she see herself becoming an artist one day?
"I dare not hope for such a thing. I'm just happy to be able to do something. That's enough for me."