Visual communications students partner with local special needs children for fantastical art project
Hannah Hubley’s favorite color is red. One wall in her bedroom is painted red. The other three are fuchsia. Her room has an overstuffed red chair and bunk beds with bright, colorful bedspreads.
“She has the most colorful room in the house,” says her mother, Rebekah Hubley, “and she can’t see any of it.”
Hannah, 13, was born blind. Her mother, an adjunct faculty member in Ivy Tech Community College Northeast’s Visual Communications program, is a photographer and artist who loves color.
“Whatever colors mean to her, I don’t know,” Hubley says of her daughter, “but she loves color theory and everything that has to do with color.”
Hannah was one of 12 children photographed by students in Kristin Mains’ Advanced Electronic Imaging class last semester as part of a class project. Mains adopted the concept from a project by Canadian photographer Shawn Van Daele, who created The Drawing Hope Project. He collaborates with sick and sometimes terminally ill children to turn their dreams into art. He photographs the children and illustrates a fantasy setting that puts them into a world of their creation—a girl who received a heart transplant at 7 months old becomes a fairy princess riding a unicorn; a boy with leukemia becomes a ship captain; a boy who suffered trauma after he was shaken by a daycare worker becomes a champion rower.
Students in Mains’ class were paired with local children who have a physical or developmental disability. The children, if able, drew a photo of themselves doing their favorite things. If they were unable to illustrate or describe their dreamlands, parents filled in the blanks. It was the students’ assignment to turn those drawings or descriptions into an electronic image.
Though Mains had had the idea for this project for years, she wanted to be sure the students in her class could handle the sensitive nature of the project. This wasn’t something for first-semester students, nor was it something she wanted to assign students she didn’t know well. For example, she knew she’d have to pair nonverbal children with students who were able to think creatively and abstractly, who could create a visual concept with minimal descriptors. Similarly, she knew she’d have to pair Hannah with a student who wasn’t afraid to think outside of the color wheel.
TOP: Kristin Mains, far right, and students from her Advanced Electronic Imaging class last fall. Back row, from left: Shane Wilkins, Ron Gephart, Brian Whetstone, Alex Staudinger, Jeff Simon, Jennifer Smiley, and Erica Stafford. Front row, from left: Colene Smart, Crystal Monhollen, Danielle Evans, Destiny Green, and Mains; BOTTOM: Smart (left) texturized her art project so Hannah, who is blind (right), could “see” the finished product with her hands.
That student was Colene Smart. After meeting Hannah and talking about Hannah’s favorite things, Smart decided to turn Hannah into a fairy. She photographed Hannah in Ivy Tech Northeast’s Media Services studio from behind. Hannah, dressed in a chevron-striped dress, swished her wand in an arc over her head.
For the backdrop, Smart turned to a photo she took four years ago on a visit to the Great Smoky Mountains. Smart inserted Hannah in the rocky riverbed set against a lush wash of green forest. Smart used PhotoShop to create a rainbow arcing over Hannah’s head at the end of her wand. The entire photo is outlined with a poem: “I asked her one night, ‘What do you think of when you talk about colors and you think about colors?’” Rebekah says, “and in about 10 minutes, she wrote that poem, and I was blown away.”
The poem, titled “A Color Unseen,” ends in the couplet, “Even when the eyes can’t see, they can still get a deep view/of the meaning of each color from violet to blue.” (Scroll to bottom of story to read Hanna’s complete poem.)
Smart may have figured out how to incorporate the poem and Hannah’s love of color with her art piece, but she still faced an interesting problem: How would she finish an art piece for a child who can’t see? Simple: She’d texturize it.
Smart used Mod Podge, glitter, and molds to create the fairies, flowers, and leaves to finish her piece. When Hannah “saw” the image for the first time, she looked at it with her hands. Glitter gave the fairies a different texture from the other Mod Podge’d sculptures on the art piece, which Smart decided to keep clear; this makes them virtually invisible to the naked eye and doesn’t obstruct the image. And yet, it helps Hannah see.
Smart is proud of her finished product, and the process may have provided some future artistic goals.
“I learned different perspectives on how to see differently,” she says. “If you are blind, how does art affect you? I actually think this is something I’d love to do more of. In so many art galleries, you can’t touch the paintings. I want to do a show for blind people.”
Other students in Smart’s class were paired with children with a variety of special needs, including Down syndrome, bipolar disorder, and autism. In fact, Hannah participated in the project with two of her siblings: Micah, 11, who has spina bifida; and Jonas, 9, who was adopted from Haiti and has a visual impairment due to brain damage.
The success of the project means that Mains plans to continue it in future classes. Last semester, she sought out subjects through her own connections. Now, Mains has a waiting list of children to work with her students.
Despite the students’ initial worry about the project—they were afraid of disappointing their subjects and the subjects’ families—they all formed relationships with the kids and their families.
“Down to the absolute last student, they said, ‘We don’t even care what our grade is,’” Mains says. “They were more worried about their kids.”
A color unseen
By Hannah Hubley
Red is a rose, a fire, a flame,
a sunset sky, and anger and shame.
Orange is an orange, the brightest flame,
a morning sunrise, autumn leaves blowing untamed.
Yellow is the sun, a lemon, a canary.
Yellow is joy, feeling light and airy.
Green is springtime and fresh young grass,
the leaves on all the plants that you may pass.
Blue is the sky and the deep blue sea,
a feeling of sadness, bluebirds singing wild and free.
Indigo is a pair of jeans, heavy and rough,
or the sky toward night and a deep grief that feels tough.
Violet is a purple flower, a cheerful, lively shade,
which is almost more lively than any color ever made.
Even when the eyes can’t see, they can still get a deep view
of the meaning of each color from violet to blue.