Try to describe a sunset without using colors; think about how it feels, how the air smells, perhaps about the sounds that arise at dusk. Now image how you would draw a sunset if you couldn’t see — if you’d never been able to see. Even harder: Imagine teaching someone who can’t see how to draw a sunset.
Ann Cunningham has made a career out of doing just that, teaching art for the past 20 years at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB), and though her retirement is on the horizon, Cunningham is hopeful that the art program will continue to thrive. It was in the early 1990s, while Cunningham had an exhibit of her slate carvings at Naropa University, when she began to wonder if someone who was blind could essentially “see” her artwork through touch. From there, Cunningham started conducting her own research on the subject, reaching out to experts in the field, organizing art exhibits specifically for the visually impaired with help from several grants. Eventually she found herself at CCB.
“Initially, I thought it was going to be a sad place,” Cunningham says. “But I was wrong. It was a happy place, and everyone was so welcoming.”
Today, Cunningham will readily admit that she felt a little overwhelmed when she began teaching at CCB. Teaching art to people who are blind was something she had to learn as she went along — there was no blueprint or how-to manual in place. The pivotal point in her teaching career came when a student asked for her help in making a three-dimensional map of a hotel lobby for The National Federation of the Blind in 1999. When she attempted to teach him how to make the stairs out of popsicle sticks, the student was quick to point out the error in her teaching method. He asked Cunningham to make the stairs again, paying special attention to each step, then close her eyes and do it again — then, she could teach him.
That moment became the driving force behind Cunningham’s career as an art instructor at CCB, as it helped her to understand how accessibility and effective communication can create the inclusive learning environment she was hoping to achieve.
A mandatory part of the art program at CCB is a 23-week drawing class. In this class, students first learn to interpret pictures by using a touch book that Cunningham created with the help of Deborah Kent, a prolific author of children’s novels of all genres. In 1996, Kent wrote a collection of biographies of famous people who were blind called Extraordinary People with Disabilities.
The ridged outlines and texture of the pictures in Cunninghams’s touch book allow students, some of whom have been blind their entire lives, to dissect the image in front of them through touch. After learning to interpret the picture plane, Cunningham can then teach them about complex concepts such as perspective. From there, as Cunningham puts it, “there is no limit.”
She fondly recalls one class project during which the students were asked to recreate the landscape they had explored outside the classroom. When one student placed sharp grooves between the trees of her landscape, Cunningham was initially confused until she realized the grooves were meant to represent the sunshine beaming down between the trees.
Some may wonder why teaching art to the visually impaired is important at a place like CCB, where students go to learn everyday essentials such as reading Braille and traveling with a cane.
“A whole lot of what rehab is about at the center is building confidence,” Cunningham explains. “We try to send everybody out with the confidence that they can learn anything.”
Teaching the students at CCB how to interpret a picture and ultimately make their own works of art is a way for them to tackle something they likely previously thought they could never do, thereby giving them the confidence needed to take on new challenges. Additionally, there’s the added benefit of introducing the students to a creative way of expressing their emotions.
After 20 years of teaching art at CCB, Cunningham has seen how much these classes help build her students’ self-esteem. Understandably, she was nervous about the future of the art program once she decided to retire later this year. But when it came time for Cunningham to look for another teacher that would continue the program, she had to look no further than the walls of her own classroom. Cunningham’s former student Jenny Callahan became blind in 2013 and enrolled as a CCB student two years later. Shortly after Jenny graduated from the program, Cunningham was able to take various art courses with Jenny and train her to teach art. This was all possible with the assistance of an Arts in Society grant. Now, Jenny teaches ceramics every Friday at CCB.
Currently, Cunningham is busy trying to raise money to create more touch books for blind art students, which help her teach them about different art concepts.
“I really wanted to be able to leave the center and know the program is going to go on,” she says. “I’m feeling very, very good about that right now. I don’t see it going away.”
If you’d like to see the artwork of the students at CCB, their work is on display every fall semester at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton. If you’d like to donate to CCB, a leader in independence training for people who are blind, please visit cocenter.org.