Cunningham's art is just a part of these intertwined life experiments, something you'll see for yourself while feeling your way through Tales Written in Stone, a multimedia presentation featuring touchable sculpted fairy tales. The exhibit, enhanced by such tools for the blind as Braille large-print text and audio description, opens Friday at Access Gallery, VSA Arts Colorado's showcase for art made by and about people with disabilities.
There was no chicken-or-egg dilemma in Cunningham's artistic evolution. She started sculpting in her teens and was eventually drawn into the medium's tactile possibilities while carving slate, a smooth material that feels good to the fingertips. "I tried to get people to touch it, but people are so trained not to touch things, it's difficult to get them to do it," she says. Frustrated, she began to explore the bumps and ridges of tactual stimuli, a quest that led to the Colorado Center for the Blind.
"I needed consultants," Cunningham explains. The center's unsighted constituents were informative and inspirational and, to her amazement, provided unexpected answers. That partnership led to two key developments: Cunningham pitched the idea for a show of tactile fairy tales to Cynthia Madden Leitner at the Museum of Outdoor Arts, then pitched herself as an art instructor to her new friends at the Center for the Blind. Both proposals were accepted. (She now also teaches at the Art Students League of Denver.)
"Teaching evolved into a very collaborative exploration with my students," Cunningham says. "I'm really fired up about figuring out how big a world you can actually access tactually. They give me a lot of advice; we brainstorm together all the time. My students drive me, and I drive them back.
"I have three students who are congenitally blind, and they're very demanding, always asking questions: 'What's an outline?' 'What's diminution of size?' They've all heard that railroad tracks come to a point in the distance, but why? So we work on it until we get these concepts experientially."
How did she explain perspective, then? "First I told them to run their canes along the side of a long table, but that didn't work," Cunningham recalls. "Then I said, 'Put your cane on my head and put another one at my feet.' And I backed up. One of them asked me, 'Are you crouching down?' But I was standing up; it was just her experience that I seemed to be getting smaller."
Cunningham's preference for experiential experimentation has grown on a personal level, too: "I've been studying Braille. One day I had gone to the end of a line and read it. But when I went back to the front of the line, I got confused. So I just hung on the letter. Then I got real quiet. You know what it's like having your eyes crossed, and then you uncross them and things then come into focus? Well, the dots moved under my fingers, and suddenly they came to me in a recognizable shape. I realized that tactile experience isn't just textures. It's an organizational tool."
With that in mind, the artist rightly contends that Tales Written in Stone isn't just for the blind or the deaf. It's for everyone, and it's especially nice for families frightened off by museum exhibits where exhibit touching is forbidden. The only thing problematic for her is the fearful constraint of not touching. "Come and touch it," she urges. "Come and experience it with your sense of adventure."