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Thursday 17 March 2016

Making carved wooden panels with braille on them for Southmead Hospital in Bristol: an artwork for blind and partially-sighted people as well as those who have good vision. Part One - first steps in researching

I have to say that this project has been one of the most interesting that I've been lucky enough to be commissioned to do.

Ruth Sidgwick, arts organiser for the North Bristol NHS Trust, contacted me in April 2015. Some large plane trees were due to be removed from the grounds of the hospital at Southmead in Bristol and Ruth wondered if the wood could be used for a sculptural project to be permanently installed in the Brunel building there.

As part of the project, two day-long workshops, which I would oversee, would also take place at the hospital. During the 'Fresh Arts Festival', patients, staff and visitors to the hospital would get the chance to learn some carving skills and contribute to the final sculpture.

The artwork also needed to include or reference some words and phrases that had been selected by patients at the hospital, who were members of the writing and knitting groups, as being important to them.

Well, it didn't start off exactly as planned. Timber from a previously felled tree that had been stored at the hospital for the project had disappeared in the meantime!

While talking about what would be carved for the sculpture with Ruth, I looked at the other artworks that were already installed in the Brunel building. There were a lot of very interesting pieces but they were nearly all either flat paintings, behind glass or high up in the air. It occurred to me that there wasn't a lot for people who were blind or partially-sighted and that there must be quite a few such visitors and patients at the hospital.

So began the journey. As someone with pretty good vision, it was important to me that the sculpture shouldn't just be a gesture, but should really try and engage those with partial or no eyesight. Looking online for ideas didn't turn up much though. It seemed like there were no woodcarvings out there that were trying to do exactly what I wanted mine to. However, everyone seems to love the feel of wood and it seemed a great tactile material to use in this kind of project.

There were some restrictions on what could be done, as the hospital had strict guidelines to prevent potential sources of infection on the sculpture. It couldn't have any deeply carved cavities, for example. That also ruled out using textures such as fur.

First, I contacted the RNIB (the Royal National Institute of Blind People). Mark Croft, an advice worker there, sent a helpful list of organisations involved in making art more accessible to blind people. Helen Deevy, who works at one of them called The Art House,  passed on my contact details to a blind artist and sculptor in Wakefield named Alan Michael Rayner.

Alan has a lot of experience in producing his own woodcarvings and is a member of the West Riding Woodcarvers Association. He came up with many very interesting and useful suggestions for consideration. These included (amongst many others) using a thermo-formed plastic covering on the sculpture to prevent cross-contamination, methods of accessing audio descriptions that could be embedded into the sculpture and the pros and cons of using braille as part of the artwork. He also put me in touch with an organisation called Living Paintings.

Camilla Oldland at Living Paintings explained about the process of thermoforming plastic and we both felt it was probably impractical on a piece this size. She also pointed out that a large area can be difficult for a blind person to navigate around. Camilla suggested making a smaller 'orientation panel' to act as a guide to the larger one.

After talking with Ruth at the hospital, audio descriptions were also ruled out due to possible interference with medical equipment and procedures (as well as possible expense).

Thanks to the help of all these people, a design was starting to form in my mind. I sketched it out and sent it to the hospital for approval.

The next stage was to begin making the panels, but I didn't realise at this point that I was still to meet the Bristol Braillists...

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