On this day two hundred and eight years ago Louis Braille, the man responsible for devising the system that bears his name of six dots to a cell for each letter of the alphabet, was born in a small village in France. But did you know that he was only a teenager when he did this groundbreaking work? The link below is to a half hour audio described and captioned docudrama video about Louis Braille:
This past winter, I had the opportunity to design a touch tour and write verbal descriptions for an exhibit featuring the work of Ohio artist James Mellick. Here is one of his more lighthearted dog sculptures.
When I Grow Up, 2007
This abstract sculpture of a very small dog on very tall legs stands about 4’ high. The body looks like a breadbox on stilts. The four legs rise up as four separate elements and are joined by a rectangular mid-section of two pieces with a wide gap running horizontally along its side. The legs are slender and elongated with knees and elbows about a third of the way up from the floor. The muscles, tendons and joints in the legs are subtly indicated by the gentle swelling of the stick-like limbs that then flare out at the thighs and shoulders. They appear to have been stretched as if they were elastic. The four pad-like paws with their carved front toes standing squarely on the ground seem large given the thinness of the legs. Behind each of the front legs, the dewclaws are represented by teardrop form attached at to the limb at its upper tapered neck and the globule hanging in high relief.
Two large bat-like ears resembling large pasta shells growing up from the back edges of the head mounted at the front end of the boxy body. The brow sits well below the ears. The muzzle tapers toward the blunt rectangular nose. The mouth is a narrow downward slit toward the bottom of the muzzle.
At the other end, a long thin tail curls down and around the rump, between the hind legs, where it then arcs downward beneath the middle of the torso.
The shapes are very simplified and there is minimal detail. The surface is smooth and polished with a soft sheen.
This tall narrow vase stands 16” high and is 5” wide. The body or lower portion is a little over half the height of the vase. At the shoulder of the vase, just below the slightly tapered base of the neck, is a strip of clay that joins the neck to the cylindrical body. It protrudes from the body like an uneven collar. The bottom of this strip has a rough edge that appears to have been torn. lug or knob has been pulled from this strip on either side. They stick out like little fingertips. The tops of these lugs have a small depression as if made by a thumb pressing down while the clay was wet. Two more lugs with holes in them are also on either side near the top of the neck, below the rim of the mouth. Uneven in size, the one on the right is a little bit longer than the one on the left. They stick out like two small rectangular ears.
This vase is like a recording. The depressions on the tops of the lugs at the shoulders, the rings banding the body and the neck, the splitting and cracking where the upper lugs and shoulder collar are attached, and the unevenness of the walls – they way they bow in and bulge outward – are all a record of the artist’s hands and the nature of clay. The color of the vase is smoky and streaky with flares of lustrous coppery reds, greys and blacks as well as the surface textures that range from glossy to matte, smooth to rough are all reflective of the wood-firing process.
This vase is part of the audio described touch tour for the exhibit “For the Table” at the Ohio Crafts Museum.
Above is a photograph of one of the pieces included in the audio described touch tours I recently did at the Ohio Crafts Museum for the Best of 2017 exhibit last month. This was one of the pieces we had permission to touch. The complete description, as given in the tour, is below:
Ginkgo Candelabra Set
Hand forged; mild steel land silicon bronze with walnut support base
Karine & Matthew Maynard
The artist’s words:
The Ginkgo tree has survived since the time of the dinosaurs and its leaves are beautiful in their grace and shape. This piece celebrates light and time by using the Ginkgo as a design motif and as a symbol of life.
This set consists of three pieces: a long, horizontal candelabrum that measures almost three feet wide and 14” high and two tall symmetrical candelabra that measure 12.5” wide and 40” high. All three pieces are 5.5” deep.
The low wide candelabrum sits on the front of the open display stand and is flanked by the two tall candelabra immediately behind. All three of the pieces consist of sinuous ribbons and tendrils of dull grey metal that swirl and curl around a more static form. On the long low piece, the form around which the tendrils travel is a thick arching vine or branch that rises from the far left and touches down several inches short of the far right edge where it curves gently upwards. Growing from the long the shoots that stem from the main arching vine are gold fan-shaped ginkgo leaves. They have a central vein and lightly scalloped arched tops. Their stems echo the left to right flow of the viny growth. Five small grey candle cups rest on five golden drip pans, like handle-less teacups on saucers, at varying heights along the length of the candelabrum.
The two tall candelabra are mirror images of each other so what is on the right side of one will be on the left side of the other. They each consist of a single straight rod-like element that is 40” high, the last 8” of which rise above a tangle of swirling tendrils. These tall forms begin as flattened triangular forms emerging from the base of the candelabrum, less than 1/2” thick. As they rise, the apex of the triangle is stretched upwards and the shape grows thinner and rounder until it becomes a slender rod topped by a candle cup and drip pan. Two more candle cups and drip pans perch on tendrils emerging from the twining growth: one to the outside of the tall rod several inches above the base and the other to the inside of that central rod, about halfway to the top. A few ginkgo leaves sprout from a curved shoot to the inside of the lowest candle cup. As in the low horizontal candelabrum, the main components are dark grey with antique gold accents in the ginkgo leaves and saucer.
All three pieces rest upon low walnut bases. The warm tones of the wood echo the warm notes of the gold accents. The gold saucers and leaves have a grayish patina so that the contrast between the two metals is muted. The metal itself has a hammered texture, tangible evidence of the artists’ tools.
I thought I’d share an article I wrote for the ACB Ohio’s newsletter last summer:
Last week, as I was preparing to provide live audio description for the CAPA Summer Movie Series presentation of “The Wizard of Oz” I was reminded of an episode from my childhood. Back in the dark ages, before we had streaming video, DVDs or even video cassettes, the annual broadcast of perennial favorites such as “The Wizard of Oz” was a very big deal. There were two nights a year our family ate on tray tables in front of the TV and one of those nights was when “The Wizard of Oz” was on.
One year I was being punished for some childhood transgression or other and I was not allowed to see “The Wizard of Oz”, which — for the sake of this tale — you should know I had seen several times before. However by the night of the broadcast, my mother was feeling sorry for me and allowed me to sit beside the closed door to the den, where my sister and father were watching the movie with the sound turned way up — on eleven, as the lads from Spinal Tap might say — while my mother kept me company in the kitchen. With the music, sound effects and dialogue as my cues I proceeded, from memory, to regale my mother with details of all the visuals I was missing. And so, upon reflection, I suppose that’s when my career as a nascent audio describer began…
Now to those of you familiar with audio description, this tale actually is a bit backwards with regards to how an audio describer works and for those of you who are not, allow me to explain. An audio describer creates a supplemental narrative by describing the visual details and actions in a movie or performance that would otherwise be inaccessible to audience members who are blind, low vision or otherwise visually impaired. Audio describers also describe art work and other types of exhibits in museums, parks, landmarks, educational materials, sporting events — pretty much any visual content you can think of. Audio description is just that: description. A good audio describer provides the imagery using language but does not interpret the material being described. It is our job to allow you, the audience, to have the story unfold with all of its nuances as the director intended and to experience art and exhibits so that you can draw your own conclusions.
So, what’s actually involved in creating audio description for a performance? The first thing that is necessary is to preview the performance or movie. Ideally I like to see something three times. The first time just to see it and understand the flow of the story and action. The second time is to make notes on the action and visual details and the third time, at least when I’m working on a film, is to work out the audio description in the context of the action. There’s a lot of stopping and starting when I work on a movie. Unfortunately when I work on a theatrical performance, my time line is very compressed. I generally preview the show one time, maybe four or five days prior to the performance I’ll be describing, before I begin writing the audio description and pre-show program notes. By getting a copy of the script in advance, I’m able to acquaint myself with the characters and the flow of the show before previewing. The night I’m in the theater I keep one eye on the stage and the other on my notebook as I scribble details about the costumes and sets. I supplement my notes with photos from the production’s website.
Unlike the pre-taped audio description you might hear on TV, at a live performance (or in the case of something like a movie festival where the audio description may be provided live) we have the luxury of spending the half hour prior to the show to give more detailed descriptions of the characters, costumes, scenery and sets as well as pertinent information from the printed program. These notes generally run less than half an hour and are repeated as time allows until the curtain goes up.
Between previewing, reading and writing my description, I generally spend at least 16 hours to prepare for a show. So when a venue requires that patrons make accommodation requests a certain length of time before a performance, please understand that they need time to locate an audio describer and the audio describer, once booked, needs time to prepare so that you can have the best possible experience.
Many venues provide audio description upon request as opposed to having a set performance time that will have audio description. You can always request audio description for a performance by calling the box office. If the box office cannot handle your request simply ask to whom you should speak and ask for the best way to contact that person. Many museums have audio descriptions of select items from their collections on their websites. The Audio Description Project has many resources listed on their website http://acb.org/adp/.
Don’t be afraid to request access. If you are already an audio description consumer, please be sure to give feedback to the theater (or museum or television station, etc) so that they understand what it means to you to have this access. You can do this either by posting on social media, making a phone call, sending an email or going old-school and sending a note via snail mail. If possible, try to get some feedback to the audio describer. We can provide better description when we have a better understanding of what our audience wants. Not everyone is the same, so not everyone may want the same level of detail and you may like some audio describers better than others. But, hey, that’s a horse of a different color!
Happy Birthday Helen Keller: June 27, 1880
This 1955 black and white photograph shows Helen Keller, on her 75th birthday, assisted by Polly Thomson (secretary and companion) serving birthday cake.
In this black and white photograph, two older women stand shoulder to shoulder behind a lace covered table. On the table is a three-tiered cake decorated with icing flowers and swags and a single small slender lit candle. A stack of small plates with dark patterned rims sits to the left of the cake.
The woman on the left, Helen Keller, is a few inches taller than the woman on the right. Her face is cast slightly downwards. Her eyes are open yet her gaze is not fixed upon anything within the picture frame. Her is mouth opened in a smile. Helen’s dark wavy hair is parted on the left and pulled back from her face. Short waves of whiter hair flanking the part frame her face. Her light-colored damask, short-sleeved dress has a V-shaped neckline that is both wide and deep. It covers her shoulders and dips down to just above her breasts. She wears a triple strand of round white pearls around the base of her neck. Her right arm, bent at the elbow, reaches forward slightly as the broad bladed cake knife in her right hand poises between icing flowers atop the cake, its tip just behind the lone birthday candle. The knife obscures the writing on the far side of the candle but two words, one above the other, are visible on the near side: Birthday Helen.
The woman on the right, Polly Thomson, is wearing a darker dress of the same style and similar fabric except for the sleeves on which are fuller and pouf out at the banded cuff just above the elbow. Her hair is darker than Helen’s and is also worn in waves pulled off the face and parted on the left. With her chin tucked in, Polly’s head tips down toward the cake. Her downcast eyes direct our attention to the cake and the four hands of the women.
Both of Polly’s arms are held in towards her body and are bent at the elbows. Her right arm crosses in front of Helen’s left arm, seen just between the two women’s bodies and below Polly’s right elbow. Polly’s right hand reaches across Helen’s waist as she holds, her fingers gently grasping, the top of Helen’s right hand as Helen cuts the cake. Polly’s lower left arm crosses her body as she loosely holds Helen’s left hand in hers.
The touching right hands and forearms of the women create a V shape at Helen’s waistline, above and to the left of the cake. Their touching left hands and forearms create a smaller V shape, echoing the first, at Polly’s waistline. The down-turned heads and points of the V that are created by the hands direct our attention to the cake.
In the background on the left, behind Helen’s right shoulder, is a candle in a wall sconce. To the right of the sconce, we see the top left corner of the narrow black frame of a picture or document, the glare from the flash bulb obscuring its contents. In the lower left, below Helen’s right elbow the upper left of the dark wooden frame of a shield-backed chair is seen. Between the women and behind Polly on the right, are indistinct dark shadowy shapes resulting from the photographer’s flash.
Today is Helen Keller’s birthday. She would be 137 years old today. And I am thinking that she would be amazed at the technological advances we all take for granted today. Things too myriad to mention although I will mention one: screen readers. Screen readers that enable people who cannot see to use the Internet, read books, magazines and documents and to share more fully in our common culture. Screen readers that I hope will be making this blog accessible. So I am also thinking that this is a good day to launch this blog.
In this space, I will be sharing as some of the descriptions of people, places and things that I have written as well as some of my experiences an audio describer. For now, it is my intent to post on a weekly basis. A description of the photograph at the top of this page is below.
The photograph at the top of this post shows the back of a seated woman, seen from the waist up. She sits, in the center of the photograph, within a darkened rectangle beneath a red swag with gold fringe and above a gently curved railing high above rows of red velvet seats. A light from above highlights her white hair, bare shoulder and back of her dark blue top. The white glow of the corner of a small screen is seen to her left, below her shoulder and above the railing. The rectangular opening fills the right half of the space beneath the swag with its five ruched or gathered sections. Red panels fill the left half. There are two square columns to the right of the darkened rectangle where the woman sits. They have gilding on their framework as well as the scrolling details at their capitals and their square bases. Gracing the arched frame over the scalloped red swag above the box where the woman sits is more gilding. Another smaller swag arches over the narrow opening between the two columns.
Below the booth where the woman sits, a curved railing with vertical lozenge shaped cutouts. The lozenge-shaped cutouts are surrounded by more gilding and resemble block Os. The railing is divided wider, plainer panels into sections of three Os. There are three full sections visible.
Below the railing, a wedge of steep rows of empty red velvet theater seats rises from the lower left corner to fill most of the lower half of the picture. A small triangular area of gold fills the lower left from the corner up to the horizontal line of the bottom of the railing.
The walls, panels and swagging all have a busy scrolling pattern of gold on a red background. It is barely discernible on the swags with their series of shallow U-shaped folds or the wall beneath the railing where a trick of the light and the proximity of the solid red seat make it appear more gold than red but can be clearly seen in the wash of light in the narrow passageway between the square columns in the upper right.