About a dozen students gather in the basement of Allens Lane Art Center in Mt. Airy for their weekly sculpting class. They spend the time working on long-term pieces, learning new techniques and catching up with each other. They are students in the center’s class for the visually-impaired.
Some have been blind from birth. Others lost their sight in an accident or over the course of many years. The class, Vision Thru Art, accommodates beginners as well as students who have long considered themselves artists.
A support group
It’s a way for them, especially those coping with the loss of their sight, to regain their “vision,” according to Carol Konopinski, the teacher. She added that the class often acts as a support group.
“Being blind means one of the ways you see is with your fingers. When [the clay] is under your fingers, you can feel the essence,” said Konopinski.
“Whenever you create something, there is such positivity that comes out of it,” she continued.
The class is facilitated by Konopinski and a group of volunteers who come in to help each week — some are the spouses of students, artists themselves, or just neighbors looking to help out.
Learning to ‘feel what you once saw’
Miriam Piatetsky, who has been coming to Allens Lane from Northeast Philly to volunteer for two years now, explained the class is something she looks forward to all week long.
“They inspire me. They see nothing and the world is so colorful to them. It’s like I am the one to see through their eyes,” she said.
“When it comes to art, nothing is a challenge,” she added.
Betsy Clayton, who has been attending the class for 16 years, agreed the class is a high point in her week.
“You can’t do any more of the things you did. You have to learn to feel what you once saw,” said Clayton, explaining the transition she made when she was losing her sight.
Clayton attends the class with her sister, Carol Saylor, who began experiencing the beginnings of deafness and blindness in 1979, when she was working as an art teacher. For her, the class allows her to continue taking her art further in spite of her impairments.
Getting to class can be a challenge for a number of the students. Many rely on public transportation and SEPTA’s Paratransit service, requiring them to navigate transfers and multiple legs to get to the center.
The trek is worth it to the students, though. Sometimes, when the trip takes too long, students end up coming for less than an hour before they have to head out again.
Mike Gieshcen, who is one of the many students who also participates in the Philadelphia Art Museum’s Form in Art class for the blind, calls the class his “adventures.”
“We get to socialize, chit-chat and share ideas,” he said, while working on his wire sculpture project. The sculpture, based on his idea of fantasy, will be on display at the Art Museum in an upcoming special exhibit.
Konopinski is currently looking into the possibility of expanding the class’ offering to different locations throughout the region to make it easier for students to get to and open up the service to more people. Eventually, it’s a concept she believes could go nationwide.
A textile designer by trade, Konopinski took over the class after volunteering for a few years when the longtime teacher, Robert Fluhr, became too sick to continue teaching and eventually passed away in 2011.
The class was started in 1956 by Philadelphia artist Laura Goodman out of the Community Arts Center in Wallingford. Vision Thru Art has called Allens Lane Art Center home for the past 24 years.
Vision Thru Art meets on Wednesday mornings at Allens Lane Art Center. Registration information can be found on the Allens Lane Art Center website.