Please touch the art: Tactile Vision exhibit invites everyone to experience artwork


Jim Ballard shows a template. (Photo by Tracy Felix

Most art galleries do not allow visitors to touch the artwork, but an upcoming show on March 25 at Graphite Art Center in Edmonds encourages everyone to do the opposite.

The interactive exhibit, called “Tactile Vision,” will showcase mostly sculptures and embossed drawings,which will be set up with text and braille side by side. Several local artists — led by Jim Ballard, who sparked the idea — have created Tactile Vision to include those who are visually impaired or blind.

“We’ve purposefully chosen pieces that have both smooth surfaces against something that has a lot of texture so there’s a contrast,” Ballard said. “People can touch the artwork while walking around it.”

Embossed artwork. (Photo courtesy Tracy Felix)

There will be a few books with braille and embossed artwork displayed on a pedestal or table where visitors may flip through the pages and read in braille. One such book is Book on Invertebrates, which Ballard created.

“I was trying to find insects and other animals that a person who is blind would not have the opportunity to touch,” Ballard said. “An example is the jellyfish. By presenting it into a detailed paper, they have an actual way of knowing what that animal ‘looks’ like. It enlarges their world through touch.

Ballard starts with a pen-and-ink sketch on paper that is later scanned and uploaded onto his computer. Then he uses Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create guides where parts of the image will be raised up from the paper. He sandblasts the entire image on a piece of tile or wood to create a template before the embossment process.

More than 12 years ago, Ballard was working with a group of blind and visually-impaired children at the Louis Braille School in Edmonds, Wash. He had asked the director, Carolyn Meyer, if she could show him some of the instructional materials that were used at the school. One such example was a picture of a flock of Canadian geese that were flying in a V-formation.

“I noticed the limited amount of details in the plastic. So I thought I could probably produce more details on paper,” Ballard said. “I went home and created something like this great blue heron so the kids can feel the feet and the long legs.”

The kids would give him feedback on the samples, such as “This has too much details,” or “not enough information.” Ballard would refine the artwork based on their recommendations.

Since 2015, he has been talking about setting up such an exhibit with Tracy Kay Felix, who is one of the artists involved with “Tactile Vision.” But the exhibition is now a reality since Graphite Art Center was opened to the public in early 2022.

Ballard Waves (Photo courtesy Tracy Felix)

“The exhibit is nature-based so there’s a lot of different textures that Jim has created that have to do with the ocean,” Felix said. “While working with people who are blind, Jim discovered that they don’t have any idea what ocean waves are like. If you were a bird flying over, what would the waves look like?”

Using fiber paste, which is a material that mimics handmade paper, Ballard created a series of overlapping ocean waves on four-by-four squares and gave them to the students to touch.

“And they’re touching this and they’re like ‘Woah, I didn’t know the ocean could do all these different things’,” Felix said. “So [Jim} is always thinking about what is it that people who are blind can’t experience?”

Tracy Felix and Jim Ballard at Graphite. (Photo by Nick Ng)

Tactile Vision will also feature 3D artwork by Mary Ann Tokars-King, Julie Perrine, Gary Word, Mike O’Day, Richard Hestekind, David Varnau and Tracy Felix.

“If you walk around most gallery shows, anything that is a sculpture often has a ‘Please do not touch artwork’ [sign]. So when you turn that around and say, ‘Please come in and touch all the artwork,’ it’s a pleasing shock to folks who have visual disabilities or are blind,” Ballard said. “This whole Graphite is designed for bringing in people who may not have the access to art or the tools. The key is to provide an art experience that the public has not experienced before.”

Tactile Vision will be opened to the public at Graphite Art Center on Saturday, March 25, from noon to 4 p.m. Guide dogs are welcome.

— By Nick Ng


  1. This is a great exhibit. It is open through June 10. It would be good if the article was updated to reflect the people have lots of time to go visit.

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