Connected \\ October 25, 2019

Feeling art

It’s not every day that a museum encourages visitors to touch a painting.

For Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction, the exhibition project team wanted to find a way for people who are blind or low-vision to interact with the artwork in a meaningful way. They commissioned a designer to build a 3-D tactile reproduction of Morning Mist, a 1958 oil painting considered to be one of Hofmann’s signature works.

Hans Hofmann: Morning Mist, 195

Hans Hofmann: Morning Mist, 1958; oil on canvas; 55 1/8 x 40 3/8 in.; University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; bequest of the artist. © The Regents of the University of California, photography by Ben Blackwell.

Now visitors can glide their fingers across the smooth plastic surface to feel the subtle ridges and slightly feathered edges left by the artist’s palette knife. They can also listen to an accompanying eight-minute audio recording that describes the varied shapes, textures and composition found on the canvas.

visitors explore the new tactile reproduction in Hans Hofmann

Using their hands, eyes and ears, visitors explore the new tactile reproduction in Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction. Photos by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

The 22-inch-tall tactile reproduction is displayed at a slight angle to accommodate guests in wheelchairs and is positioned directly in front of the original painting. The goal is to encourage everyone to explore the piece and gain a new perspective from the experience.

PEM Interpretation Planner Liz Gardner, who spearheaded the project, says the tactile reproduction on view marks a first for the museum. This particular Hofmann painting was chosen for its crisp rectangular lines, which she explains were easier to differentiate and scale down.

We’re trying to design experiences that are multisensory; where everyone is welcome,” she says. “I hope people leave with a better understanding of Hofmann’s process and depth that comes with his work.

For this project, PEM worked with David Whitewolf of Tactile Reproductions LLC, whose clients include The Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museum of Art. 

Morning Mist is one of my favorite pieces. It was a joy to make and is so rich in texture — it really is fun to touch,” Whitewolf says. 

To complete this tactile reproduction, Whitewolf worked closely with Sina Bahram, president of the inclusive design firm Prime Access Consulting, and J.J. Hunt, who wrote and voiced the guided tactile description.

Work like this strikes a personal note within Bahram. His vision, while never perfect, severely worsened after a tennis ball accident when he was a child. Now blind, he consults with organizations around the world to make content and create designs that are accessible to as many people as possible.

visitors explore the new tactile reproduction in Hans Hofmann

© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing.

“It’s been a part of my story,” says Bahram, who holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer science.

For Morning Mist, Hunt and Bahram describe the thick mossy green blotches of paint and the smooth, distinct rectangles. They aim to verbally capture the vibrancy of the artwork — like the decadent smears of buttery yellow paint or the deep valley of blended patches of orange — while still leaving much to the user’s imagination.

Enhancing inclusion is what Bahram strives for through his company. He has worked with dozens of museums, including the Field Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Opportunities like this tactile experience at PEM, he says, allow for a wider range of visitors to enjoy a piece of artwork. He hopes the experience, with its added Braille component, sparks questions — especially from children — and raises awareness among adults.

It’s going to lead to conversations,” says Bahram. “Museums are spaces where these conversations should be safe to have and be encouraged
visitors in Hans Hofmann exhibition
© 2019 Peabody Essex Museum. Photography by Mel Taing.

Hans Hofmann: The Nature of Abstraction is on view through January 5, 2020.

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