'I Gain So Much': Working With Visually Impaired Artists, One Volunteer Learns More Than She Teaches
Sharon Keagy will be the first to tell you she is not an artist.
“I think I peaked at fourth grade,” she says. “I drew a picture of a fox and it won a competition and that was it. That was the height of my art.”
About five years ago, the retired school principal was offered the opportunity to volunteer with the adult arts program at Envision, a Wichita nonprofit that serves people who are blind or visually impaired.
“I thought, ‘Art? Not me,’ ” Keagy remembers.
But Keagy — who says she wasn’t familiar then with the organization — calls herself a lifelong learner.
“I thought that [is] a great learning opportunity,” she says. “And it was.”
On a recent Thursday morning, there are just a handful of students in the studio, putting the finishing touches on projects on the last day of class before a long holiday break. Some are crocheting; one is painting a set of ceramic dishes shaped like maple leaves; another is weaving a rug made from strips of cloth, torn off of T-shirts.
“This one’s for my sister,” Lauren Bush explains. “I’ve actually been working on it a long time.”
The studio, located in the basement of Envision’s headquarters near downtown Wichita, is lined with art supplies—pottery glazes and paint samples and small bags of jewelry findings – and racks of projects in various stages of completion. There’s even a woodworking table in the back corner.
Keagy is in constant motion, moving from one student to another to offer opinions, encouragement, and the occasional hand.
“I didn't want to make people feel uncomfortable by not knowing how to approach them with their disability. But I was also excited about learning it,” Keagy says. “So many people, in my opinion, when you’re not around people with disabilities, you may have that uncomfortable feeling, or you want to do … too much for them.”
Some of the students are more independent, she says, and others need more assistance.
“So it’s just keeping an open mind and asking,” Keagy says. “I mean, they’ll tell you.”
Student Roshunda Holt is beginning work on a piece depicting Wichita’s Keeper of the Plains statue, made from string woven intricately around nails. She says sometimes Keagy will help her out—particularly during crunch time, when Holt is working on multiple projects.
“It saves the visual stress on me … because I don’t see straight,” Holt says. “So it takes me a little bit longer to do my own outline.”
The room has been adapted to suit artists’ individual needs: There are special lights for the workspaces, and cabinets are labeled with large lettering to make it easier to read.
“Our dear friends come in with whatever their abilities are,” Keagy says. “So it’s more abilities than disabilities. They come in with their abilities, and you see them build on it.”
She says people outside of the program often are surprised to learn that the artists have any visual impairments at all. Envision has an annual show at CityArts, and work produced by artists in the program hangs at venues around Wichita.
Sales benefit both the artists and Envision, with proceeds split 70-30. Artists have also participated in local and national art shows.
“It’s a great thing to see, the growth and the beauty in what they do,” Keagy says. “And that I get a little teeny part in all that is just the most amazing thing to me.”
Sarah Stewart—Keagy’s daughter-in-law and head of the arts program at Envision—says she couldn’t ask for a better volunteer.
“It’s not so much about understanding or knowing art or craft design, but about compassion for humans in general,” Stewart says. “And she’s just a perfect fit for that.”
Follow Nadya Faulx on Twitter @NadyaFaulx.
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