Barbara Rowlett-Rheingrover
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Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Atlanta, GA, November, 1992

Hands-on exhibit reaches out to visually impaired
By Diane R. Stepp

It's been nine years since Barbara Rheingrover sat in her darkened Roswell studio and ran her hands over the stone sculpture in front of her. She was searching for a flaw, a tiny crack that might have escaped her eye as she worked.

Already an accomplished artist on canvas, Ms. Rheingrover was moving into the untried three-dimensional world of sculpting.

"I knew from experience that the fingers are much more sensitive than the eyes. I thought if I turned the light off maybe I could see the line flaw in the sculpture I didn't think ought to be there. It was pitch black..."

There in total darkness, the thought came to Ms. Rheingrover: "What must it be like to be blind and not be able to enjoy the world of art? It [the stone sculpture] felt quite good ... the contrast of things, the smooth and rough." The seed was planted that night and Ms. Rheingrover set about finding a way to bring the arts to the visually impaired.

She took her idea to Atlanta's Center for the Visually Impaired, where then-assistant director Scott McCall encouraged her to put together an `art show for the visually handicapped, a "Please Touch" exhibit.

Ms. Rheingrover contacted 11 fellow stone sculptors and five years ago curated the first "Tiuchables"show at the Center for the Visually Impaired. "It was a great success. Handicapped people kept calling, saying how much they enjoyed it,and sighted people as well. They said they never got to touch anything at museums and galleries."

By the second year the show had grown and was moved to the Tula Gallery, where an official at Georgia Tech saw it and offered to host the show on campus. It continues there this year through Dec. 14, in the Westbrook Gallery of the Theater of the Arts Building,

The works of 28 artists from throughout the United States and Europe are featured in this year's show in a range of media: stone, wood, cast aluminum, clay, recycled paper, bronze and fiber.

One of the hits of this year's show is Woodstock artist Melinda Crider's work of three-dimensional prisms constructed of braille paper.

Another show favorite is Fort Collins, Colo., wood sculptor Russell Skinner's inlaid wood interpretation of the parts of the inner ear, such as the stirrup and anvil bones. "It's really quite delightful," Ms. Rheingrover said.

"Visitors seem to love the smooth and rough, the contrast of the pieces and forms," said Ms. Rheingrover, who is often on hand to give special group tours. Each piece is marked with a title card in large letters for those with limited vision. A braille message tells about the piece, the artist and some of the artist's thoughts in creating the work, and visitors also can listen to recorded tapes about each work.

Although the show is targeted to a visually impaired audience, everyone can enjoy it, she said. "It has been a really good and positive thing."

Mr. McCall, now director of the Center for the Visually Impaired, agrees: "The most significant thing is that it encourages rather than discourages using sense of touchas a way of appreciating art. It opens up a new dimension of appreciation."

Mr. McCall, who is visually impaired, said the exhibit is the first of its kind in the Atlanta area and that it is rapidly gaining a following of art lovers who look forward to its return each year.

"It's grown tremendously since the first year, partly due to the fact that, historically, people visually impaired have not had the opportunity or encouragement to visit art museums. There hasn't been a large base of [visually impaired] people interested in art. If a sighted person sees Renaissance art they start to become interested in it and want to see more, for instance. It's a new experience for many people visually impaired.

"What we're seeing is that the base is growing each year and people keep coming back," he added.

Ms. Rheingrover lives with her husband, Gary, in Cobb County, just west of the Roswell city limits. She maintains a studio north of Pisa, Italy, where she works at least six weeks of the year.