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Thursday 17 March 2016

Making carved wooden panels with braille on them for Southmead Hospital in Bristol: Part Two - Fresh Arts Festival and meeting the Bristol Braillists

After the initial process of research, my design for the wall-mounted sculpture in the Brunel building at Southmead hospital had been okayed and I now needed to assemble a panel to be carved at the Fresh Arts festival.

Since the timber originally earmarked for the project had vanished, I decided to buy some kiln-dried oak instead. Suitable locally grown wood wasn't available, so instead I did the next best thing and bought some that had been PEFC certified (indicating that it had come from sustainably and responsibly managed forests) from a local timber merchant.

The boards were joined and glued without using dowels or biscuits, as they can look awful if carved into by accident. Once the board had been sanded the design was drawn on and then it went with me in September 2015 to the Fresh Arts Festival.

Carving at 'Fresh Arts', with music provided by the 'Gasmen' choir. Photo by Ruth Sidgwick
The design was created to have plenty of straight lines and simple carving, so that passers-by could have a go and get stuck in with minimal carving experience. Several visitors and patients remarked to me that they found the carving process very relaxing and that it was 
a welcome activity at that time.

After the festival, I continued to carve the panel but was still undecided about using braille. Alan Michael Rayner had previously pointed out that there was more than one kind of braille and that, if I wished to use it, it was worth getting experienced advice.

One evening, sitting in the pub, I mentioned the project to my friend Steph. He reminded me that he was currently involved in a project to design a Kindle for blind people and then said that the group was meeting soon and that several braille users would be there. He invited me to join them. 


That was how I came to meet the Bristol Braillists, who provided a lot of helpful information and expertise during a very interesting evening indeed. It's very rare, I would imagine, that a sighted artist gets to sit with five blind people and to chat about how they interact with the world and how an artwork could be made more accessible for them.

One story from the evening stood out for me. I was told about a young woman, blind from birth, who was asked to draw a bus. She drew three straight lines. The first was the step, the second her route up the aisle of the bus and the third the pole that she held on to. The rest of the bus was irrelevant to her as she couldn't feel her way around it all.

I also found out that some blind people have a name for sighted people: 'light dependants'. Very true!

The braillists at the meeting came up with several good ideas and points. Hazel noted that someone who is blind may not have any reference for what is portrayed in a representational carving; a landscape has never been seen by some blind people. Dave thought that metal pins could be used to represent the braille dots - an idea that I later used. 

Later, when I had begun carving the main panel, Paul and Hazel Sullivan from the Braillists group very kindly came to my workshop and tried out the panel to check it for 'usability'. It was very interesting to hear their comments and Paul had typed out, on a braille typewriter, the wording that I wanted to use. This meant that I could drill straight through the dots on the printed card, so using it as a template.

I used brass jeweller's ball-head pins to make the braille dots, each snipped to length and then glued into an individually drilled and recessed hole - over 1600 pins!

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