Hands-on art experience

Artist Nigel Laxton and Ryan Honschooten, who’s experience a painting by touch for the first time.

WHILE most galleries sternly warn patrons “Pease do not touch the art”, newly opened Kamilė Gallery is tossing that aside this weekend with a tactile session for blind and low-vision people.

Optic nerve cancer robbed Ryan Honschooten of his sight as a toddler, and while he’s previously explored sculptures through touch, he says Mt Hawthorn artist Nigel Laxton’s textured paintings took his art experience to a new level.

“I really want to spend forever just looking at it,” Mr Honschooten tells us.

Sand

Laxton was planning his exhibition Aggregate as a series of ambiguous works exploring the materiality of sand, and says the idea morphed when gallery owner Kamilė Burinskaitė expressed an interest in making the gallery fully accessible.

“An inclusive gallery is not just about having wheelchair access. I want to display artwork and exhibits which you can run your hands over and get a better understanding of textures,” Ms Burinskaitė said.

“I saw Nigel’s paintings and knew that they would appeal to a wider audience.”

Laxton’s existing pieces layered sand and other material with paint, so the colour detail would’ve been missed by blind people. He created three new works conveying that detail through touch, by varying the texture and density of the layered sand.

They were based on one of his exhibition pieces depicting Captain Cook’s arrival in Australia, with its dark shading marking the ambiguity of the event as a historic moment but a black day for Aboriginal people.

For most of his life, Laxton was a materials scientist, inventor and engineer, and the material he used held significance and also embodied the works’ ambiguity. 

He’s had his studio at Point Heathcote (Goolagatup) for five years and says it’s both a significant Aboriginal site “and it’s also where Captain Stirling came down the Swan River when he was looking for where to settle Perth”.

He went down to the Heathcote beach and sought fine sand, a mixture of quartz, calcarenite, and wind-blown shell fragments dating back to the ice age.

“To some people it is sand, but to me it is a little bit more,” he says.

An artist’s talk and tactile tour on October 10 has been organised for blind and low-vision people through disability services provider VisAbility, where Mr Honschooten works as a youth officer. It’s been lined up on the weekend ahead of October 15’s White Cane Day, a symbol of independence.

Mr Honschooten has a background in sailing, including a three-month voyage on a square-rigged ship and says he especially enjoyed how Laxton recreated the rigging in his painting.

“He’s used really fine [sand] for the rigging, and there’s thicker sand where the rails are, and even thicker for the hull… it’s not just a flat piece of work, it’s got all these levels to it.”

Mr Honschooten says it’s a significant moment because he’s able to properly appreciate a painting first-hand: “If there’s a painting on the wall, I can’t get it, I can’t see it… if I go to an art gallery with you or anybody else and you have to describe to me what you’re seeing in the painting, I’m not getting what I’m seeing, I’m getting how you interpret it. That’s what art’s all about, how people interpret things.”

Canvas

He says blind people are as varied as everyone else: He pictures in his head what he’s feeling on the canvas, but others might conceptualise it differently at the upcoming tactile tour.  

“I can’t wait to see what peoples’ reaction is,” he says. 

While the artist’s talk and tactile tour is a one-off, the full lineup of works for Aggregate runs until October 30 at Kamilė Gallery at 3 Pier Street, and Ms Burinskaitė plans to hold more accessibility-focussed shows in the future. 

by DAVID BELL

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