Have You Heard? We Offer Audio Description

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Every day in our Museum, docents help visitors look closely at art. But how do they help someone with vision loss or blindness to look closely at those objects? Elizabeth Kahn, an NCMA docent, has worked with people who have vision loss. Museum Educator Diana Phillips asked her to tell about one of the methods she uses on her tours.

DP: What is audio description?

EK: Audio description is a technique designed to help people who are blind or have low vision to visualize the setting and action of stage performances, exhibits,and other arts and entertainment events. Audio description programs exist worldwide, and the prerecorded version known as “descriptive video” can be heard accompanying selected programs on television and specially formatted DVDs of films.

DP: How do you provide audio description for someone with vision loss who wants to look at a work of art?

EK: For the visual arts and exhibitions, specially trained describers begin by stating exactly “what is there” in a painting, sculpture installation, or display. The information is given in a very precise and organized way.

DP: How is that information different from what you might find on a gallery label?

EK: Audio description does not interpret the meaning of a work of art; nor does it give information about historical background, the artist’s life, or symbolism.

DP: So it just focuses on what is physically present?

EK: Yes, and for people who are blind, this description levels the playing field for a discussion of the meaning of the image. For people who have low vision, the description defines aspects of the image that may be unclear.

DP: Is there a difference between what a listener might hear in an audio description and what they might hear on an audio guide or cell phone tour?

EK: An audio guide program usually assumes that the listener sees the image discussed. On the other hand, audio description assumes that the listener cannot see the image or sees it imperfectly. If both were available, I would recommend that a visitor who has impaired vision listen to the audio description first, followed by the audio guide discussion.

Listen to Elizabeth Kahn’s audio description of the Jacob Lawrence painting Forward:

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You can also hear a reading of the gallery label, which offers more interpretive information about the work of art:

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Under the Iceberg: Planning a Student Exhibition

“The submerged bit of the museum is much more of an iceberg than [a] picture gallery.”—Neil MacGregor, director, British Museum

Would you believe that work on our exhibitions often starts years before you see the works on the wall? At the NCMA, as at the British Museum, there is more going on behind the scenes than you might expect. Our fall college exhibition, A Life, Still, offered one group of college students an opportunity to dive under the iceberg to see what happens behind an exhibition.

Months before the opening of the college exhibition (planned to complement the special exhibition Still-Life Masterpieces), Museum educators started collaborating with students and faculty at East Carolina University through “Under the Iceberg,” a program designed to give students a hands-on experience of planning and curating an exhibition. The development of A Life, Still included large- and small-scale projects, from deciding on the exhibition theme and marketing the call for submissions to selecting the final works and arranging them in a thoughtful visual narrative.

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Sir John, How Does Your Garden Grow?

This post is a followup to Great Scotts!, concerning the NCMA’s early British portrait collection.

Sir John Scott (1564–1616): Oxford-educated, knighted officer in the queen’s army, member of Parliament, knight of the shire … gardener?

Yes, Sir John Scott, whose portrait came into the NCMA’s collection in 1967, was a man’s man, busy with jousting, dueling, and fighting the Spanish, but apparently his real passion was his garden. He spent much of his fortune on it, even building a bridge for easier access across the Medway (a river inconveniently located in his backyard). Sir John’s 17th-century garden was no doubt a formal space, bent to the square and formal views of the times, and probably maintained by a small army of servants. The expense almost certainly added to his downfall. After his death much of his monumental manor house, Nettlestead Place, was pulled down, the salvaged building materials sold to pay his debts. Even the bridge was dismantled.

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Still-Life Memories of Sweden

We’re excited to have a new crop of Park Pictures along the greenway! As you may remember, three billboards, commissioned by the Museum to encourage visitors to actively explore the Museum Park, are installed twice a year along the paved walking trails. These large-scale outdoor pictures are created by artists from around the country and link art with the natural world.

This time around artist Lydia Anne McCarthy created three images in conjunction with the Still Life Masterpieces exhibition. McCarthy, a graduate of the UNC–Chapel Hill MFA program, spent the past year living and working in Sweden. Her desire to return to Sweden, to the people, culture, and landscape that she fell in love with, informs the billboards she created. The work is an homage to her time spent exploring the landscape, a manifestation of her desire to return, and a recognition of the impossibility of longing.
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And the Winner Is…

Getting in the spirit of Election Day, the NCMA Contemporaries threw a party in October to vote on—and celebrate—their latest group-funded purchase of art for the Museum. After months of Q&A sessions, debates, and deliberations, the young professionals group narrowed down the options to two works, with the help of our Curatorial Department. A photograph by Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl (2011), was the grand winner!

If Hank Willis Thomas is a familiar name for you, perhaps you remember him from our 2011 exhibition 30 Americans, which featured a roster of amazing African American contemporary artists. Thomas is a photographer whose primary interest involves linking race or racially charged images with advertising and popular culture. His correlations lead us, as viewers, to consider the present, as well as the past, in a new and sometimes shocking light. “Ultimately, my goal is to subvert the common perception of ‘black history’ as somehow separate from American history,” Thomas has said.

The Cotton Bowl presents a mirrored representation of a football player and a cotton picker—here, a post-slavery sharecropper. Nearly identical in pose and gaze, both men display the physical prowess necessary to perform their duties in agriculture and sports stardom. Yet as they are aligned, they face one other across their own invisible line of scrimmage, becoming tangible symbols of the struggle between current events and historical situations that some African Americans feel. Thomas often comments on African Americans in sports and the glory they can receive there, and the staggering economic differences between sports stars and their nonathlete peers.

What questions does The Cotton Bowl inspire about the economic positions of these characters? Is the football player in a better position than his sharecropping ancestor? And how does the play on words in the title—referring both to the classic college football bowl game and the protective covering for raw cotton before it is harvested—tie this image together?

Thomas creates images that are simultaneously accessible and symbolically loaded—and this one will bring lots of conversation and discussion to our galleries when it becomes part of the permanent collection. This is the first work by Thomas that the NCMA has acquired, and the Museum community thanks our Contemporaries for a great choice.

Image: Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, 2011, digital chromogenic print, 65 × 96 in., © 2012 Hank Willis Thomas

―Jennifer Dasal is associate curator of contemporary art at the NCMA.

New in the Gallery: Kehinde Wiley

The Museum’s newest acquisition of contemporary art is now on view in the Portrait Gallery of West Building. Amid the 18th- and 19th-century portraits of earls, cardinals, and kings, you will find Kehinde Wiley’s larger-than-life portrait of a contemporary woman, Judith and Holofernes, 2012.

Known for his monumental portraits of young black men, placed in historical poses and settings appropriated from Old Master paintings, Wiley critiques the racism of art history while also commenting on contemporary street culture and masculine identity. Reinventing classical portraiture and questioning who is represented in the portraits found in museums worldwide, Wiley states, “The whole conversation of my work has to do with power and who has it.” Read More »

In the Gallery: Mickalene Thomas

Bold, glitzy, and exaggerated, Mickalene Thomas’s paintings reference 1970s-era popular culture, as well as a current celebrity culture that simultaneously romanticizes and stereotypes female beauty and power. Her subjects, such as the women featured in Three Graces, are empowered, emotive, and fearless. They know what they want—and are unafraid to acknowledge it to the viewer. Thomas formally emphasizes this self-assuredness through the brash colors and patterns that surround these women, as well as in their glamorous outfits and the commanding poses they strike. In her portraits she positions sensuality and beauty as positive attributes, tools of strength and power.

In this work Thomas has re-created the traditional image of the Three Graces, usually presented in art-historical iconography as three women, representing conventional values of charm, beauty, and creativity. Here the Graces are updated as modern African American women, dressed up and ready for a night out on the town.

Mickalene Thomas (artist site, @mickalenethomas)
American, born 1971
Three Graces: Les Trois Femmes Noires
Rhinestone, acrylic paint, and oil enamel on wood panel
Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest), 2011 (2011.10)

Art in a New Light

I was first drawn to lighting design by the way light can shape the setting and emotions of a place—simply through color, intensity, and angle. I began my lighting career in theater, where I worked on plays, musicals, concerts, and dance performances. This varying experience gave me an appreciation for how light shapes both the emotional and the physical side of a production. In architectural or museum lighting, you are not offered the same range of options for color and angle, yet you do have the ability to shape the emotional reactions of a visitor and highlight the physical attributes of a piece of art.

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Art Speaks: Remembering Hurricane Katrina

Christ Appearing to Saint Martin in a Dream by Francesco Solimena

As Hurricane Isaac approaches the Gulf Coast, I am reminded that seven years ago this week Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the same coastline. It also reminds me of a story from 2005 that made one work of art in our collection become especially meaningful to me.

Each time I teach new volunteer orientation, I encourage the volunteers to find a work of art in the collection that “speaks” to them and to learn more about it. It can be for any reason: the landscape brings back memories of childhood vacations, the thick brushstrokes and colors amaze them, whatever it is. I suggest this so they will be able to share the permanent collection with visitors with real, heartfelt enthusiasm. When we share our own stories, it draws the visitor in and helps make art more meaningful.

For me that work of art is Christ Appearing to Saint Martin in a Dream by Francesco Solimena, a painting given to the Museum by Florence G. Montgomery in 1959. The painting refers to the legend of the Roman army soldier Martin of Sabaria. One cold day at the gates of the city Amiens in Gaul, Martin came across a shivering, half-naked beggar. Martin removed his cloak and cut it in two and gave the beggar half. In Solimena’s painting Christ appears to Martin while he sleeps, wearing half of Martin’s cloak as if he were the beggar transformed. The image alludes to Matthew 25: 40, “The king will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “

Why does this work speak to me? Like most of the nation, on Monday, August 29, 2005, I sat glued to the television screen. Hurricane Katrina had crashed into Louisiana, then Mississippi, with 125 mph winds pushing walls of water miles inland. When the waters retreated, the devastation was unthinkable. I had never seen anything like it. Over the next week, I was torn emotionally by the scenes of destruction: piles of matchsticks that once were homes; cars and boats in piles miles inland; skyscrapers with their windows blown out; and, worst, people in the streets crying over loss and need. I felt compelled to do something to help.

Two weeks later I was on a small plane to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, as a newly trained disaster relief volunteer with the American Red Cross. I had never done anything like this before, and I was nervous. Another volunteer from Raleigh and I hopped a ride from the airport to Biloxi with a nurse heading that way. As we drove south, and the destructive path of Katrina became more and more obvious, my head swam with questions: “Have I made the right decision? How can I make any difference here? Am I really meant to be here?”

After a restless night on a cot among hundreds of volunteers in an aircraft hangar in Gulfport, I met my group leader to head out for our first day of work. A dozen of us piled into a van. As we approached the building that would be our Family Services assistance center for the next two weeks, I saw the sign out front—Saint Martin’s Community Center.

I had always admired Solimena’s painting, but now when I see it, I am reminded that I was exactly where I needed to be.

Robert L. Mlodzik is visitor services manager at the NCMA.

Aerial Views from 13,500 Feet

The small plane took off. I was tightly strapped to my dive instructor and packed in with 15 other skydivers. It was a clear day with clouds spotting the sky like marshmallows. I could see the central North Carolina landscape for miles in every direction.

There is something so wondrous about aerial views. You get a vast, uninterrupted view of the landscape below. Being 5’4”, I see the world from this average-height view—unless, of course, I lie down on the ground. I usually don’t get any higher than my kitchen stepstool! It felt like a privilege to be this high up.

In the plane I could see how the land had been divided between highways and streets, treelines and hills. When I wandered through the Modern and Contemporary Galleries the other day, I was reminded of this landscape while looking at Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley No. 8. Curator John Coffey says in the Museum’s cell phone tour that this painting “was inspired really by [Diebenkorn] flying over the Southwest on a commercial airline and just seeing the way that the land was all parched and also broken up into large fields and meadows, bisected by roads, and interrupted by streams and things.”

The plane reached 13,500 feet, and it was “go time.” People scrambled in an orderly fashion to jump out of the plane. They fell so fast they were gone in an instant, hurtling to the world below. (To give you a hint of what it looked like, push your pen to the edge of a table. Push it off the edge and notice how quickly it’s gone from view. It’s like that—but human beings are the pens, and the table is 13,000 feet tall.) It was my turn; the instructor counted “1 … 2 … 3 …,” and we jumped. I learned later that we averaged 123 miles per hour in free fall.

During free fall the instructor spun us around, and the ground became blurred. He released the parachute, and the immense rush of falling 7,000 feet in about 60 seconds came to a halt as we gently made our way back to earth. The ground now looked less like the abstracted landscape view of Diebenkorn and more like the landscape in Hans Thoma’s Wondrous Birds. The land below was lush with trees and calm. I saw a few cars rumbling down roads, but all I could hear was a breeze as we circled down to the ground.

It took another few minutes before we landed on the grass about 50 feet from where the plane took off. I was back to my normal 5’4” vantage point, still catching my breath, but looking forward to my next opportunity to see the world from a different perspective.

Emily Kotecki is associate coordinator of teen and college programs at the North Carolina Museum of Art.