The Sound of Art

  • Busser Howell at the entrance to his studio.

  • He arranges his paints in a specific order so he knows where each color is.

  • Here, he's working on an older piece that he's resurfacing.

  • He flips the painting over to show how the canvases are put together.

  • One of his recent paintings hangs in the studio.

  • The placement of paint jars is important for Busser to stay organized.

  • The glass studio was an addition to his house. He fired two architects who didn't understand his design for it.

  • In the loft, Busser stores hundreds of his old paintings.

  • In recent years, he has turned to doing collage and highly textured abstract work.

  • One of the mediums he works with is tar paper, which he glues onto his canvases.

  • Here, he's peeling some tar paper off one of his pieces.

  • Busser Howell in his studio.

  • He sometimes uses wire guides on his paintings to help map out the proportions.

By Kathleen Caulderwood

Reporter: Busser Howell lives in New York, in a post townhouse on Manhattan’s East Side. The walls are covered with his paintings — huge canvases with riots of colors, geometric designs and broad strokes.

Reporter: Like any other artist in New York, he regularly attends gallery openings, or museum exhibits, and even shows his own work. But there’s one thing that makes him stand out, besides his talent.

Busser: Particularly most of the people that go to museums aren’t totally blind.

Reporter: Since he was young, Busser has known that his sight wasn’t good. He had something called secondary glaucoma, a deterioration of the optic nerve, that eventually caused his blindness.

Busser: At 15 I had about a 2 percent field of vision

Reporter: Nevertheless that was the same year as his first art show. From then on he kept working… He designs everything himself but sometimes has an assistant help with gluing or other tasks.

Busser: There’s one piece that’s getting ready to be worked on, basically raw umbers and pains greys with sandpaper and tar paper applied to it and the other canvas is I think it’s about a 48×60 it’s cadmium red medium, about 3/4 of it is cadmium red medium paint, and then it has, two rectangles at the top on either side that are in a really dark blue paper that’s fan-folded and covered with cobalt paint, cobalt blue paint that you could see that art paper coming through. In the center is, a dark red piece of paper that again has this cadmium red color on top.

Reporter: Can you picture these paintings? Just with that description? Well, that’s the main challenge for art museums and galleries in the city that hope to accommodate guests who are visually impaired or blind.
Many places offer audio tours, where you can put on headphones and hear something like this..
Tour: This painting covers the entire wall in front of you, it’s about eight feet tall and 26 feet long.

Reporter: Or this,
Tour audio: Most striking is the color. Matisse floods the canvas with red, a deep rich red, like tomato soup.
Reporter: For Busser and other artists like him, it simply isn’t enough.

Busser: And I could have listened to it here and there would have been no difference. The thing about going to the museum experience is having the dialogue being able to talk to other people who are sighted or low-vision and talking about the ideas behind what was going on with the piece of work.

Reporter: This is a job for people like Carolyn Haplin-Healey. She leads tours for people who are blind or have low vision, using techniques like verbal imaging or touch to guide them through the museum’s exhibits. It’s not quite the same as a pre-recorded tape.

Carolyn: It’s actually very different each time. In that I ask them what they perceive about the work of art because many people are perceiving something, light, shade, color, they may have a sense of the size of the object. And so what happens is, together, as the different participants in the group voice their perceptions, we kind of come to a consensus and then it’s through a kind of a dialogue that clarity develops in terms of what is actually in the work of art.
Reporter: She’s been doing this for almost two decades now, but has one favorite part.

Carolyn: I really love to go to the Egyptian touch tour. I mean that’s something really remarkable and it’s a huge privilege to have those objects available for us.

Reporter: These guests have the special privilege of actually touching some of the pieces that are off-limits to most visitors.

Carolyn: There’s a particular juxtaposition where there’s a sarcophagus made out of red granite, then in a neighboring gallery there’s a wonderful head of a cow goddess that is made of a basalt, which is a very very hard and dark stone, and so the contrast is very apparent there. It’s a remarkable experience to just touch one and then touch the other.

Carolyn: A number of years ago, a gentleman came who was blind from birth, he had no vision at all. And his approach to the work of art was really instructive to me. He had his hands all over the thing. He really knew how to explore his world through his hands,

Reporter: Last year, Carolyn worked with another artist to create an even more interesting experience.

Carolyn: A multi-sensory experience of a Caravaggio painting

Reporter: And how does one do that? Well, you ask for help from this guy.

Carolyn: One notable guy, his name is John Bramblett — he became an artist after he lost his vision.

Reporter: He worked with Carolyn to make the exhibit and does the same thing with other museums around the country.

Reporter: He’s speaking from the studio in his house in Texas, where he explained just how he helped people experience a painting of Venice just last month. There’s always something to hear…

John: We had we had someone come in and actually sing some songs that the Gondoliers sing.

Reporter: Something to taste…

John: We had some Italian food, we had some sort of I’m not sure what it was I can’t remember the director there got it was some sort of Champagne drink thing.

Reporter: Even something to… smell?

John: If you’re looking at a certain painting and there’s a beautiful woman you know then you might have a perfume from the era.

Reporter: And of course, something to touch

John: If the lady is wearing a silk dress with lace on it you might be able to bring some lace to feel.

Reporter: Basically you’re engaging all your senses except for sight. And John’s workshops attract everybody, not just people who are blind.

Reporter: Pamela Lawton is an artist and art teacher who leads classes for both sighted and non-sighted students around the city.

Pamela: My absolutely favorite activity, I do it all the time myself. I have a piece of paper here.

Reporter: She outlines an imaginary page on the table in front of her, pretending to hold a pencil in her left hand while her right is on top of her head. She keeps her eyes closed.

Pamela: Okay, so I’m left-handed so I’m drawing with my left hand as I touch my hair with my right hand. I’m doing a contour line drawing of all the features, all around my face, never lifting up my pencil from the paper, tracing all my features making a continuous, flowing line. Never looking at the page and my drawings when I do that are always good, and their drawings are always good.

Reporter: Pam is one of a few teachers who teach this regular class here at the Met on Saturdays. It’s called Seeing Through Drawing, and typically attracts around 15 people who are blind or visually impaired and their family friends. Today they’re warming up with charcoal on paper — that’s the hissing sound you hear.

Shelley: Here everybody’s an artist, you know, they make you all feel like artists.

Reporter: This is Shelley Wine, who tries to come to the class a few times a year. She also races on a skiing team for the blind.

Shelley: Every time I come here I’ve enjoyed the drawing and the exposure. And I found that when I did it in a group of people with sight it was somewhat intimidating.

Reporter: Today the class will be working with a different medium. Masking tape, that students are now pressing onto their papers in giant swirls and really cool shapes.

Barbara: I’m twisting my tape to see what kind of effect I can get, just basically see what comes out of it.

Reporter: Barbara Pell has been coming for almost four years now, and said the experience is always an adventure.

Reporter: The class talks a lot about working with the tape, and what it’s like to experience it when you can’t see. And later they’ll take a walk through a few museum exhibits and recreate some of the pieces with this very pliable, 3D method.
And if you ask Rebecca McGuiness, they’re doing a whole lot more than just making an interesting piece of art for the wall.

Rebecca: Through the process of movement in drawing is gestural, and spatial and through kind of interpreting and embodying an object that people are drawing, they’re going to have a richer mental representation, a stronger one, a more diverse one.

Reporter: Rebecca is working on her PhD At Columbia Teachers’ College, looking at the mental impressions people get from activities like drawing, even when they can’t see. This comes in pretty handy considering her job as …

Rebecca: museum educator overseeing access and community programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Reporter: She’s had some pretty interesting experiences herself.

Rebecca: I always like to draw when I was a child and growing up, and I also liked art and wanted to study art history and work in a museum. It was a little bit difficult because I’m partially sighted myself — I was born legally blind. Found that people weren’t very aware of the needs of somebody who can’t see well.

Reporter: At one time, she wasn’t even able to read the labels at the Met.

Rebecca: So that’s really the moment when I thought, right, I’m interested in how people connect with works of art and this is a barrier I’m encountering and other people must encounter those barriers as well, so, what can I do to change that.

Reporter: She’s just one of many people working hard to make sure museums and galleries around the city can be experienced, not just seen.

I’m Kathleen Caulderwood in New York City.