Local artists use their craft to promote inclusion and belonging
Twenty local artists are working on a public art project celebrating inclusion and belonging. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.
Opening Doors: The Art of Inclusion is a project of the Arts Council of the Valley, in collaboration with The Arc of Harrisonburg and Rockingham. Last fall, they invited artists to submit sketches depicting how they would turn a household door into a work of art – one that conveys the themes of inclusion, acceptance, unity, diversity, and belonging.
Jenny Burden, director of the Arts Council of the Valley, explained that each of the 20 chosen artists is approaching this concept in a different way, and in different media.
JENNY BURDEN: For example, Laura Thompson … She takes her door over to Our Community Place for painting sessions, and she has patrons over there who are helping her. … And then you have Christopher Michael. He is an art teacher at East Rock … and he's looking at the idea of inclusivity … using the symbol of a bridge.
I got to speak with one of the other artists at her home studio in Nelson County. Lana Lambert lives at the end of a long gravel driveway on a grassy hilltop surrounded by mountains. Her newly-built home on her family's farmland is pleasantly scented by woodsmoke from their stove, and the walls are covered with artwork.
LANA LAMBERT: Oh! You might enjoy this. [rustles paper] … I'm teaching a class on traditional block-printed decorative paper.
As Lambert guided me around her studio, she pulled out a printmaking design she had made of a rolling ocean wave.
LAMBERT: So the way it was normally done, was [moving wooden blocks around] … a design was sketched out, and you made sure the pattern would repeat itself and overlap. … It's carved out and then repeated, and then you do a whole bunch more … and then you have a whole block –
HAGI: Oh, wow.
LAMBERT: That you can then make repeating pattern paper from.
Lambert's expertise includes a wide variety of media – from mixed media illustration to watercolor painting, to woodblock printing, to Japanese bookbinding. Her Art of Inclusion door was propped up in one corner of the studio, on which brilliantly illuminated clouds were beginning to take shape in paint.
[sound of brushstrokes on door]
LAMBERT: I came up with the design of having this beautiful, billowing cloudscape. I don't know, there's certain times of year, it just seems like Harrisonburg has these huge, massive cumulus clouds, and it's just such a neat landscape. And when the sunlight hits it in the evening, it's just amazing.
Beyond just showing this cloudscape in the visual realm, Lambert wanted the project to be accessible to people who are blind and visually impaired. Her partner, a poet, is helping craft a verbal description of the scene, which she will install on the door with rhinestone chips in Braille. And then for colorblind viewers, based on advice from internet forums, she's providing multiple pairs of safety glasses with different color tints.
Lambert also decided to add a tactile component to the painting, after getting input from Art Teacher Tammy Waddell at the Virginia School for the Deaf and the Blind, or VSDB, in Staunton.
LAMBERT: I'm going to lay it flat to paint the clouds so that the paint can pool and that maybe there can be the curvilinear features of those clouds, so that people can touch it and feel, sort of like a relief to it.
I spoke with Waddell via Zoom about her work, and how art exhibits can be more accessible to both deaf and blind patrons. Waddell is deaf, and so for our conversation, she signed while Interpreter Erin Yanez translated for us.
Waddell has a lifelong passion for art, first instilled by her mother. Some of her favorite media are –
TAMMY WADDELL [as translated by ERIN YANEZ]: Abstract painting. Really, any type of painting. … Crafts – I really do enjoy making a lot of things. Working with wood paneling. … I also work with a pizza pan as a type of canvas to display art on – using different things and getting creative with how you do things. Upcycling or recycling materials as well, I really enjoy that.
Waddell teaches art to all grade levels at VSDB. She told me she uses an interpreter when working with blind students.
WADDELL: Being a deaf person teaching blind, hearing students has been very challenging – but I've had a great opportunity to learn from them, as far as incorporating tactile elements.
She also travels, teaching classes on De'VIA – which stands for Deaf View/Image Art.
WADDELL: It's a lot about self-expression, identity as a deaf person. Deafhood, deaf culture. … What does it mean to be deaf? There are a lot of positive affirmations related to being deaf, and there's also resistance that's part of the deaf identity.
She noted that the level of accessibility of art museums can depend on their funding.
WADDELL: I feel like it's, accessibility has come around, where more places are doing somewhat better with that. … It would be great to just have a description next to the painting that's in Braille, or something for the deaf to read. But not all are fluent readers, so there are different challenges for galleries, I know, to make things truly accessible.
The finished works of Opening Doors: The Art of Inclusion will be installed in primarily outdoor locations throughout Harrisonburg and Rockingham County at the end of April or early May.