Tactile Paintings Da Vinci Decoded

Shirley Confino-Rehder made an earth-shattering discovery when she realised that a vision-impaired visitor to a museum could literally hold the Western World’s great art in a tactile form, rather than have it described on a wall. This article tells the story of her quest to bring tactile paintings to the blind.

Shirley Confino-rehder Presents Lectures on Tactile Paintings, but Why?

Shirley Confino-Rehder ran a successful interior design business which took her all over the world. She designed homes, consulted on accessibility, and inspired urban planners with her presentations. But when she is up in front of the National docent Exchange giving seminars on why it’s important to make da Vinci and Michelangelo accessible to the blind in tactile paintings, you might wonder, how did she get here? And what is the point of trying to make the great painters of Western art accessible to people who will never see them?

Most great quests start with a series of little steps. Shirley is a certified interior designer, and over the past 45-plus years has met many challenges to fill the needs of her clients. One of her first clients was a young boy with special needs, then followed an older couple whose goal was to be able to sit comfortably on a sofa with their feet resting on the floor. She understood early in her career that every family, every individual has some kind of extra-ordinary circumstance looking for a creative solution.

Because she has always believed that meeting the needs of her clients is her responsibility, Shirley set a goal in 1989 to design a home that everyone, no matter the special needs, could live in, for an annual building show. Her concept was based on “barrier free design”. It was sold to a young man and his family five days later, He is a veteran and a double amputee. The family grew, and they are still living in the home today. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) selected that house as an example of accessible design. Architectural courses used her concepts in their classroom. We now call the concept she practices Universal Design.

In 1991, she was invited to be one of 75 people in Virginia to learn the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) by the Department of Justice, promising that she train others. To date, she has given classes and trained people all over the world on the ADA and universal design to architects, government, state, and local employees/employers, advocates, and educators. In 2001, she closed her offices and she and her husband, a NASA scientist, moved to Padua, Italy. He won a research grant, she wanted to study painting. It was there that she first encountered tactile visual art, a thermal, tactile overlay on a religious icon. If accessibility was a passion before, this cross-current ignited it. Could the blind be taught to appreciate visual art?

Back in the states after ostensibly retiring, she met Rebecca McGinnis at a conference on Universal Design. Rebecca McGinnis is a senior Museum educator overseeing the Metropolitan Museum’s Access and Community programs in New York. And it was Ms. McGinnis’ book that inspired her to follow her dream of exposing art to the blind. She also became a docent at the Muscarelle Museum of Art in Williamsburg. VA.

Homemade Tactile Paintings

Shirley’s husband created “canvases” out of cardboard boxes, and she used puff paint to depict three paintings chosen from the collection of the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. She invited a friend who was blind to join her at the museum. Everyone she had spoken to wondered what she wanted to accomplish. It is common knowledge, after all, that people who are blind never go to museums, isn’t it? Shirley persevered. In an earth-shattering discovery, an “aha moment,” which nonetheless went relatively unnoticed by those around her, she realised that a vision-impaired visitor has the capacity to mould and change the function of a museum space. She observed that she could show her tactile paintings in the museum café as effectively as in the gallery. It might not matter to the visitor with a vision impairment whether the canvas was hanging on the wall or placed on the table in front of him/her or on his/her lap. To her friend, it mattered not whether the great art was displayed on the wall; she held it in her hands.

That was in 2003. Today, Shirley has found other ways of producing her tactile representations of art; and has become a popular and sought-after presenter at docent exchanges both at local and national level. Her most recent project, making the Renaissance masters accessible to the blind, is for the Leonardo da Vinci and the Idea of Beauty exhibit at the Muscarelle Museum. It will be there until April 5th. Then the exhibition will travel to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it will open April 15th through June 14th. She does not know if they will offer Tactile Tours, but she does know that the tactile images will be available to “sit on anyone’s lap” on request, at the Muscarelle Museum.

And Who Makes These Tactile Paintings?

Emmanuel and Rebecca Blaevoet own Tactile Vision graphics, the company which produces tactile representations of just about anything,–in this case, adapted Renaissance art. If you want to find out how else we can bring your visual design into a tactile format, readable by those who cannot read print, please Call Email or find us on the web,
and on Twitter @TactileGraphics


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