Artist Tomiyo Tajiri stands in front of her tactile-friendly sculpture at the Envision Arts Gallery’s opening. (Whitni Carlson for Kansas Reflector)
The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Whitni Carlson is a freelance writer based in Wichita.
The weather was harsh for last Saturday’s “Envision Your Community,” the first show in the new Envision Arts Gallery space, next to the historic Union Station building in Wichita’s Old Town. Blowing wind and 10 degree temperatures could dissuade even the hardiest art connoisseurs, but according to Sarah Kephart, Envision arts program and gallery manager, the estimated 288 guests were a sign that Kansas is ready to embrace blind or visually impaired and disabled artists.
“By all accounts, the day has been a great success,” Kephart said, “We had moments when it was hard to weave between all the people here to view these extraordinary pieces and mingle with the artists. It’s been fun to see the community engaged, since that was the whole purpose of the show.”
Tangible opportunity sparks off the gallery’s bright walls, lined with portraits of the 18 featured artists, each next to an example of the artists’ work in their chosen media. Envision marketing manager Holly Herring escorted me around the space, pointing out the special features like raised tape lines on the floor for blind or visually impaired guests to trace with their canes to identify informative QR codes beneath each portrait and artwork.
“We were very careful to include details like sound and touchable sculpture to make the space come alive for a diverse range of guests — both fellow artists and community members wandering in,” Herring said.
The playful opening setup included a photo booth in the front window, a back room for snacks and a wet bar.
In the early afternoon I sat down with artist Cindi Lopez as she finished up her collage. Lopez, who lost her vision in an accident, was seated between her parents at a table where visitors could leave mini “Braille” circles decked out in our own textures of photos, sequins, or stickers to “fill in the blank,” of what the community envisions for the gallery’s future.
Lopez’s bio on the Envision Artist Profile site calls her “a true ray of light,” and she was that — cracking jokes, calling her mom “a troublemaker,” and teasing her dad that she wasn’t even close to done with all her colors, even as she glued the final sequin.
“Oh, I love working on my art,” Lopez said, “I cut apart magazine pictures and come up with something new!”
Lopez’s 10-year participation with Envision has opened doors, with her collages recently featured at both WAVE (a local music venue) and at Douglas and Market as part of the public arts project, “A Window into Wichita Art.”
Oh, I love working on my art. I cut apart magazine pictures and come up with something new!
– Cindi Lopez
During the evening reception, I spoke with three of the show’s other featured artists. When I met Roshunda Holt, she was hanging out with local BVI musician Charlie Wilks, trying to persuade him to repeat his full half-hour acoustic guitar set. I asked Holt if she was also a musician, and she laughed.
“I do a little bit of everything,” Holt said. “I never tried working with mosaics until Sarah (Kephart) suggested it, and now I make all kinds of sports mosaics to sell — (KC) Chiefs mainly, but I do baseball and other football teams too — whatever people want.”
Holt has been with Envision since 2015, about the time of her diagnosis with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic condition that limits the retina’s response to light. Holt’s bio on Envision’s website highlights a string of her recent achievements, but what she gushed about had just as much to do with leadership and empowering others as with her own studio art.
“I led a string art workshop at my church (St. Mark United Methodist) and people loved it!” she said. “It was called Building Bridges One Nail at a Time, because, you know, they put the strings across the nails and everyone made friends.”
Holt proceeded to take a “selfie” with me, “because I love making friends — it’s just what I like to do.” She then turned to introduce me to two more artists milling around the room: Lauren Bush and Tomiyo Tajiri.
Bush’s video installation channels the artist’s frustration as a blind young adult navigating life and career training. When I told Bush that I liked her ceramic masks, she smiled and said wryly, “thanks, it felt cool to break the mask on camera — and the muffins too. I think it got my point across. I feel happy sometimes (the yellow mask is a happy face), and sometimes mad too — really.”
The emotions conveyed by the overhead camera angle, showing her hands breaking a black-and-white sad mask and crumbling muffins one by one are raw and personal.
Bush has gained crucial life skills through Envision’s services: learning Braille and public transit navigation to technology camp and even a golf clinic. But her life beyond her hometown of Wichita, (including exhibiting in Louisville, Kentucky, and now attending culinary arts school at Butler Community College), has both opened doors and revealed barriers. Her sculpture and accompanying video were first displayed at Wichita State University’s ShiftSpace Gallery as part of their “Envision Your Story” expressive arts workshop and exhibit last summer.
I love to create things that remind me of my culture, and allow me to touch the delicate things in nature, like flowers. While my sight gets darker, I still use my hands, and soon I will show all of my work here.
– Tomiyo Tajiri
I couldn’t help but reach out and touch flowers designed by Tajiri. Reaching into the pocket of her kimono, she pulled out an origami crane, a traditional Japanese symbol of peace. She offered it to me, saying that I should open and close the wings while thinking of my personal wishes, and they will be fulfilled in due course.
“I love to create things that remind me of my culture, and allow me to touch the delicate things in nature, like flowers,” Tajiri told me. “While my sight gets darker, I still use my hands, and soon I will show all of my work here.”
Indeed, the next solo exhibit slated for Envision’s gallery will feature the veteran public installation artist, who has a permanent installation in Gallery Alley in Downtown Wichita. “Maitreya” is funded through a $5,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. While not originally from Wichita (she grew up on Okino-Erabu-Shima, a small island north of Okinawa), Tajiri is proud to make her home on the Kansas plains. Her touchable, accessible piece feels so welcome in this space, where form and color don’t need to remain “hands-off,” but can be sensed by the whole human being.
The gallery will not remain exclusive to Kansas artists. The exhibition schedule includes nationally renowned artists such as John Bramblitt. But what drives Envision’s mission is the engine of local, personal impact. Gallery director Kephart personally engages with the BVI artists’ community that the Envision Arts Gallery serves and showcases. Kephart was proud to show off the artists’ hard work, and I saw evidence of her own long-term efforts as well.
“The opening of the new Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center has been a dream spearheaded by Sarah for a long time,” said Michael Monteferrante, president and CEO of Envision. “Envision is thrilled to bring to life this national initiative and what it represents: inclusion and accessibility for all.”
The opening exhibit collected local partnerships that brought together Kansas art fans and donors and shed fresh light on the work Envision has done for BVI residents here in Wichita over the past 89 years.
Going forward, Kephart says, the gallery could be a real beacon in Kansas for outsider artists and art-lovers, like herself. Its artist-in-residency program is designed to connect the BVI community to other artists working within the creative community of Wichita.
All proceeds from artwork and merchandise purchased from the exhibit directly supports the artists as well as helps to fund artistic endeavors for the Envision Arts program. You can learn more about the Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center by visiting the website, envisionartsgallery.com or by calling 316-440-1699.
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