Familiarizing the Abstract: Making Sculptures with Blind and Visually-Impaired People


Little else feels as good as familiarity. So when poetry defamiliarizes the familiar before refamiliarizing it, the resultant effect is close to transcendence for me. I am thinking of Robert Hass’s “Longing, we say, because desire is full / of endless distances.” We already know what longing is, as a concept, so when Hass defines the “long” part of it in terms of length, it defamiliarizes the word for us, before refamiliarizing it in this new definition, a newer way of looking at desire. 

This semester, I assisted Dave Johnson and Omar Ovalle, along with Napoleon Felipe, at a poetry and art workshop with VISIONS, a service organization providing residence and community activities for blind and visually-impaired people. The title of the workshop was “The Material Word,” and the overarching theme was abstract sculptures. One might wonder, as many of our participants did: how can an abstract be material?

When the participants heard “sculptures,” they knew what sculptures they wanted to create: a house with a heart-shaped door, a heart, a rainbow. Hence, we started with reservations. Omar Ovalle, our resident art teacher and a proponent of “misbehaving” (that’s his term for being playful in art making), sat down with participants—often individually—to talk about their reservations, encourage abstraction and unfamiliarity, to be brave and open. Here, we also had various conversations regarding what it means “to see,” “to visualize,” and to create visual art. One of the participants shared an anecdote about talking to a taxi driver about being visually-impaired, to which the driver responded, Don’t we all close our eyes when we kiss? We see better that way.

Thus, with an image still in their minds, each participant began with drawing abstract shapes and lines over their cardboards, which would form as the anchor to the final styrofoam sculpture. These shapes were weird, uncanny, and very difficult to comprehend. The shapes were rendered onto the styrofoam and cut accordingly. Once the participants each had their styrofoam in hand, they felt for edges, curves, and textures to visualize it in their minds and hearts. During this phase, we had a lot of conversations about what their sculptures seemed to them. Dave gave a few prompts such as, Speak in the voice of your sculpture (persona poems), have a conversation with your sculpture, etc. The participants wrote many poems and experimented with what their sculptures were telling them.

Next, we covered each of the styrofoam sculptures in papier mache. Here, the participants could really experiment with texture, in all the multiplicities of meaning it allows when touched. Some chose a plateau approach. Others kept it simple. During this week, we visited the Queens Museum to see Emilie L. Gossiaux: Other-Worlding exhibition. The participants were incredibly surprised and excited to find out that Gossiaux also used the papier mache technique to make a sculpture of her guide dog, London, dancing around a maypole. The art piece was focused on touch and played with texture as well. 

We let the papier mache dry before getting onto our final phase of artmaking: painting & decorating. By now, each participant had a better idea of their vision for this final piece and imagining what it could be. They knew what color they would like their piece to be, what sort of decoration was needed. One of the participants, who was previously unsure what the shape was, eventually painted her piece in ocean blue, decorated fishes and moss over the papier mache, and titled it, Coral Reef. One by one, what started as strange shapes took familiar forms as the paint and superglue for decorations dried. By the end of it, we were looking at Coral Reef, Heart, Dragon, A Tree.

There are two things I have learned that I want to remember from these exercises and the VISIONS visionaries (as Dave calls the participants) and which I want to share with you all: engage most—if not all—of your senses while creating to look at objects in newer ways in all their multiplicities. That is where poetry resides. And lean into uncertainty; it will reward you with a deeper understanding of what you already know and hold true. I want to leave you with this persona poem by Elizabeth Tarr, one of our incredible visionaries:

What do I look like to you?
No, seriously. I’m not being flippant.
Please, take a moment to ponder.
Is it something I said?
People often pass me by without getting to know me.
Maybe because I’m not like one of those popular shapes?
I hope my different form doesn’t make you feel uneasy.
But I promise; I have a lot of character
because I’ve been through a lot.
And I’m not even talking about being sawed with burning wire
and being smothered by sticky paper dough,
although that is only the beginning of what I’ve endured.
Do you think I could pass as two entangled pine trees?
I’m not trying to tell you what to think,
but I hope your answer is “yes.”
Because my foundation is strong
and my roots deep,
I’ve grown and remain standing through violent storms.
If you learn my history, you will better understand
the mystery within my being.
Dare to take a deeper look with your heart, mind, and soul.

*     *     *

Javeria Hasnain is the author of SIN, a poetry chapbook forthcoming in 2024. Her works have appeared in numerous journals, including Pleiades, Poet Lore, The Margins, Mascara Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is an MFA Poetry candidate and a Fulbright scholar at The New School.