You don’t have to hear to feel the vibrations of music, and you don’t have to see to feel a brushstroke gracing paper or canvas. Art-making is a multi-sensory process, and so while it sounds contradictory to hear about a blind painter, the two are not as mutually exclusive from each other as some would like to think.
It’s a lesson never lost in Nanning, capitol of China’s southern Guangxi province, where Zeng Bailiang, a self-taught artist, has spent the past several decades teaching art to the blind.
Zeng started holding classes after he saw a young blind orphan draw a circle and some dots in the sand. When he asked the orphan what he was doing, the boy explained “that he was drawing a red worm with black eyes and feet.” The orphan’s imagination inspired Zeng.
While other artists found teaching the blind to be worthless, impractical, and impossible, Zeng saw an untapped mine of artistic potential. “We should not view painting as an aesthetic art form, but to put it accurately, painting is an emotive art form. So I decided to teach blind people how to paint. I must light the lamp in their hearts. And since then, I have been doing this for almost 40 years now.”
The students, many of whom are orphans, start by practicing brush strokes on a special paper that lets them feel wet and dry areas in their paintings. Eventually, they work up to using long strokes to paint mountains or bamboo tress or small strokes to draw flowers or birds. Zeng credits their success to their ability to use their other senses to compensate for their lack of sight. In addition to Chinese painting, Zeng and his staff of volunteers also teach massage and acupuncture, both careers that the Chinese government encourages for the blind.
It sounds contradictory, but around 90% of the blind can still perceive some level of light and form, and when their other senses, such as touch, are heightened to compensate for vision impairment, it makes for artistic visions not really explored by the seeing world.
Professional blind artists work internationally, such as Esref Armagan in Turkey, Keith Salmon in Scotland, Manipal Arunakumari in India, Michael Anthony Williams in Tennessee, and Sargy Mann in England. Multiple institutions around the world teach art to the blind, including Art for the Blind in Ontario, Art Through Touch in London, Art Encounter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Art Education for the Blind, a non-profit affiliated with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
But these institutions are in the West, and Zeng’s students are not, and so he created his own methods to help these students grasp and appreciate the art-making process. Zeng, who “sees standard techniques as conforming and lacking life,” experiments with different teaching methods based on the student. “The way I teach will be different for different students, we should not use ‘dead’ techniques. Of course it would be convenient, but it would stifle their creativity,” he told Reuters. “So we have to adapt to different people, because everyone is unique and they have their own intellect and we should respect that. My way of teaching is to find out what they are good at and use artistic concepts to help them grasp that skill.”
There’s a very distinct difference between seeing in the physical sense and seeing in the artistic sense. While Zeng’s students are not able to physically see in the same sense that the non-blind population is able to, they are still entirely capable of seeing through art. Artists “have an innate understanding of how the brain ‘sees’ the world,” believes neuroaesthetics pioneer and University College London professor Semir Zeki, “and they are fated by this knowledge to constantly try to find a correspondent visual language.”
“The brain demands knowledge,” Zeki told The Guardian. “It is constantly on the lookout for organizing concepts.” And art is a way of supplying that demand.
While most of Zeng’s students earn their living as acupuncturists and massage therapists, it is through his art class that many have learned self esteem. “At first, my mental state was not good. In the past, I did not even dare step out of home,” said Chen Linfang, who has been studying with Zeng for the past three years. “After learning from Teacher Zeng, at least I felt I could walk out of my home by myself. I am more confident now.”
Zeng only hopes that his classes can keep on opening doors for his students and unhinder views that others may have towards the blind.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Dooley via Flickr