Saturday, April 7, 2012
isn't blind to the beauty of braille.
She isn’t blind at all, in fact: The artist sees quite well, thank you ~ even better without glasses than some of us do with glasses. Her deep blue eyes have successfully watched her dominant hand guide a paintbrush for many years, have observed and abetted the creation of works ~ in acrylics, in encaustic wax, via lithography, with gold leaf and aluminum leaf and more ~ that have improved the walls of Gallery Lombardi, Arthouse, Women & Their Work, Studio2Gallery, and San Antonio’s Galeria Ortiz. It’s just that, especially in recent years, Jacqueline May has used braille to enhance, to complicate, to inform those works.
THE WORD MADE FLESH
“I’ve always been interested in secret-code type things,” says May, over java and a piece of rich sweet cake at Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery. “But what got me interested in braille, specifically, is that I was doing volunteer work at the Recording for the Blind center on 45th Street, and I was seeing all these braille things in my immediate surroundings. And it sort of clicked over, like this is another thing, this is another secret code that some people can read and other people can’t, like another level of meaning that’s embedded in our everyday reality. A stealth thing. Like those ancient photographs that have been exposed by some arcane process, that tell us a secret or something about our environment that we wouldn’t otherwise know.”
Brenner: What was the first piece that you used braille in?
May: It’s been a while, but I think I started out by using cut-out dots on some drawings. Then I got intrigued by these sheets of clear dots that I had, that are for sticking on the backs of paintings. I had sheets and sheets of them, so my paintings wouldn’t scuff up the walls. And the little dots had their own existence ~ they were pretty little things, all rainbowy in the light, looked like drops of water. And I started sticking them on my studio wall … and, uh, a movement was born.
Brenner: A movement that involves braille and … fish?
May: I shot this video in Chinatown, in San Francisco, when I was traveling. I was going through a lot of internal stuff about reuniting with my birth family, and some of that came out in the video as looking around at my surroundings. There were these fish, swimming around in a tank at a fish-seller’s stall, swimming back and forth. And it just struck me how they were fated to die. Like seeing the human condition, how we’re all here, swimming around, waiting for our ultimate demise. And here’s this fish-seller on the other side of the tank, and you order from him ~ “That fish right there!” ~ and he takes your fish and dispatches it for you.
So I shot this video, and as I’m shooting this fish tank that separates you from the fish-seller, I pan around, and there’s this long row of skyscrapers on either side. And you get the sensation that you, yourself, are in a fish tank.
Well, I don’t know if too many people got that out of the video, but it was my private story that I was making for myself. And that’s where the painting Charon’s Flock came from. And because I’d started doing the braille work at the time, it seemed like a natural progression to drill holes in the painting and install lights behind the holes. And the holes are the braille version of a quote from Walt Whitman:
Whoever walks a furlong
without sympathy walks to
his own funeral drest in his shroud.
So there’s this poetry that occurs because there’s light coming from the holes, but, for someone who’s blind, they’re never going to see that light. And it’s like a marriage of complex flavors, like when you sip something that has a really complex taste: It’s a visual parallel to that. And I’ve used braille in lots and lots of other things since then, it’s become a standard.
Brenner: Have you had feedback from people who are blind, who’ve experienced any of the braille that you’ve used?
May: Yes ~ and they really enjoy that somebody has thought about them in creating artwork. But I can’t say, to tell you the truth, that the foremost thing in my mind was “Let’s go and make artwork that’s accessible.” That was secondary to the initial concept.
But, at the same time, as a person who has a heart, I do care about people having access. And it also opened the door for me, to some opportunities that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. In July, I’m going to be in Norway, in Christiansund, doing a braille installation there. It’ll be in between the health center and the public library, there’ll be rainbowy dots on the wall … and I’ve been talking to a couple of friends about the possibility of throwing in some runes for craziness’s sake.
Brenner: Jacqueline, have you made any art recently that doesn’t incorporate braille?
May: Well, I’ve been doing some video artwork lately ~ although I’m throwing some braille in that, too, as a sort of frustration factor. It’s just a funny, quirky thing. People see these dots scrolling across the screen and they think, “Oh, a pret-ty lit-tle pat-tern,” and it’s just an inside joke for me and my two best friends. Of course, now I include you into that circle.