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Thursday 17 March 2016

Making carved wooden panels with braille on them for Southmead Hospital in Bristol: Part Three - the finished panels!

After nearly one hundred hours of work, the oak panels for Southmead hospital were ready to install. They were finished with Danish oil, for an attractive appearance together with some durability.

The main panel measures 61cm by 122 cm (2 feet by four feet). It shows figures writing, knitting and carving. They are deliberately vague, so can represent the patients who put forward their important words and phrases or anyone at the hospital seeing the sculpture.

The writing, knitting and carvings are spilling off the table and flowing off to become a landscape with fields, rivers and roads. Some of the fields have the phrases and words on them. To the top right are well-known buildings in Bristol with the sun breaking out from between clouds above as a hot air balloon floats by. I liked the idea of the words and phrases guiding across a landscape of memories and experience.

Along the top left of the panel, brass pins are set in to form an inscription in braille. There is no translation, so sighted people who cannot read braille must use the nearby key to read it.

The second panel is smaller, about 22cm by 30cm (8.6" by 11.8"). I took the advice of Camilla Oldland at Living Paintings, who had pointed out that blind people can get 'lost' feeling their way around a large panel without knowing where the boundaries of it are. This panel is an 'orientation panel'. Blind and partially sighted people can feel around the manageably-sized carving to find their way across the main panel. To help them, certain features are also named in braille. I think these names are like a poem on their own: fields, birds, trees, people, Bristol etc.

The third panel is about 21cm by 21 cm (8.27 inches square). It is a key to grade one (or uncontracted) braille, so that sighted people can translate the braille inscriptions. Grade one is the simplest form of braille used in the UK, being pretty much a direct translation letter-by-letter. There was some discussion with the Bristol Braillists about whether to use this or grade two, which uses contracted words so needs less room and is quicker to read. It was agreed that grade one was easier for non-users or braillists from other countries to get used to, so that was the one that I decided on.

I really wanted to include this panel as there are clearly a lot of people waiting around in the hospital with things on their minds. I hope that these sculptures will be an interesting puzzle for non-braillists, as well as introducing them to using this form of communication. That is why none of the other braille used is translated. Viewers must work out what it says.

At the beginning of March 2016, the panels were installed on the wall at the hospital. The Chief Executive of the North Bristol NHS Trust, Andrea Young, unveiled them on the 11th March.

One highlight of the day for me was being able to show Hazel and Paul the finished panels. We discussed that even though what the design shows may not be obvious to some users (think about it, no one who has been completely blind from birth knows what a landscape looks like), it can read as an abstract and still be enjoyed for the textures and the fact that braille users are directly engaged. It was great to chat to Paul about this, as he works for Bristol museum and art gallery making the displays there more accessible for other blind visitors.  In an interview with the Bristol Post newspaper, he said:

"There aren't many opportunities to feel artwork but this one invites it, which is brilliant. 
To have information in Braille and to find that I can read it is great.
I also like the idea that we can read this but most other people can't, when in 99 per cent of our lives it is the other way around."

Left - Right: Ruth Sidgwick (Arts Programme manager North Bristol NHS Trust), me, Andrea Young (Chief Executive North Bristol NHS Trust), Hazel, Paul. Photo by S. Cook

One thing that I find a bit of a shame is that I can't show the finished panels to some of the other people who gave me such helpful guidance. Obviously, emailing a photo isn't much use for some of them. I'd like to thank everyone here for their input on what has been one of the most interesting projects that I have worked on so far.

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