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Braille Institute Helps Students Find Purpose Through Art

Its classes offer a creative outlet for the visually impaired

“I still remember the day I threw out all of my art supplies,” Joan La Greca recalled. “Paints, brushes, canvases — the whole lot.”

That was 14 years ago, soon after the Santa Barbara resident was diagnosed with macular degeneration. Despite a fine arts background and a passion for colorful landscapes, La Greca was convinced she would never paint again. Her vision continued to deteriorate and, after losing her husband two years ago, she felt as though her world was falling apart.

Art classes through the Braille Institute have given Joan La Greca a new lease on life.
Art classes through the Braille Institute have given Joan La Greca a new lease on life. “I haven’t painted this much in a long time,” she says. (Braille Institute photo)

At the urging of her daughter, La Greca reluctantly came to the Braille Institute. She was skeptical at first.

“Many of our students come in thinking they’ll never be able to create art again,” educational programs manager Lynn Dubinsky said. “Joan was one of them. But her transformation has been remarkable.”

“My instructors taught me how to adapt,” La Greca said. “Using magnification, lighting devices and my other senses, I’ve regained my passion. The classes, my fellow students, and the staff at Braille Institute have me wanting to paint again. I am enjoying it so much.”

Classes in painting and other creative arts such as mosaic tile and sculpture are some of the most popular at the Braille Institute. It offers an application of a wide variety of skills that students learn in other classes — including memory, manual dexterity and spatial orientation. In addition, creative arts classes give students the opportunity to start and finish exciting new projects, which provides a sense of accomplishment.

The difference has certainly been palpable for La Greca, who credits the Braille Institute and the instructors there with giving her a new lease on life.

“I wake up excited to go to my class and work on something new,” she said. “I haven’t painted this much in a long time.”

La Greca is one of a number of students from the Braille Institute’s Santa Barbara Regional Center whose work is being featured in a new online gallery. Click here to take a look at the wonderful work of these students.

If you or someone you know would like to find out more about Braille Institute’s creative arts classes, click here or call 805.682.6222.

For anyone looking to get started on his or her own, here are some ideas to consider:

» If you’re used to getting creative ideas from magazines, newsletters or websites, you can keep doing this — just switch to large print or audio media.

» If the medium of your favorite craft is too difficult to see or some tools are too difficult to use, find something about that craft that can be adapted so you can continue working in the same medium in a different way. For example, if you are a painter, consider switching from portraits to landscapes or from realism to abstract painting.

» Take a class or join a craft group to get new ideas in familiar areas, or learn a different craft. Dozens are offered at the Braille Institute.

Popular Art Forms to Try

» Clay is a versatile medium that builds tactile skills, is excellent for practicing the use of visual memory, and is very satisfying no matter what your level of expertise. The techniques of using a pottery wheel are just as easy for a person with vision loss to learn.

» Woven handicrafts use sensory skills and patterns, and provide enjoyment through contrasting textures, colors and forms.

» Knitting and crocheting require almost no modification other than being more careful with needles and asking someone to help select and organize colors.

» Needlepoint, embroidery and sewing require more precision, but you can continue doing them by using adaptations such as large needles, thimbles and special threading devices.

Some Tips for Success

» Store tools in predetermined areas that are clearly labeled. Use color coding where possible for easy recognition.

» Contrast is essential. Your working surface or work table should provide contrast with the project you are working on and, wherever possible, use tools in contrasting colors.

» Use direct task lighting such as a gooseneck lamp with clamps, head-worn magnifiers or lights. Or, if possible, position yourself near a window to capture natural light and increase visibility while you work.

For more information on classes to help you get your feet wet, call the Braille Institute’s Santa Barbara Regional Center at 805.682.6222.

— Courtney Kassel is the public relations and marketing director for the Braille Institute.

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