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updated: 2/24/2011 12:23 PM

Fabric lets visually impaired can 'see' famous paintings

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  • Several Naperville Unit District 203 students were able to experience the "Mona Lisa" thanks to Sally Barker and her color code.

      Several Naperville Unit District 203 students were able to experience the "Mona Lisa" thanks to Sally Barker and her color code.
    Tanit jarusan | Staff Photographer

  • Visually impaired students navigate Sally Barker's version of the "Mona Lisa."

      Visually impaired students navigate Sally Barker's version of the "Mona Lisa."
    Photos by Tanit jarusan | Staff Photographer

  • Madison Junior High School eighth-grader Jessica Minneci wishes she was able to use Barker's system to view more pieces of art.

      Madison Junior High School eighth-grader Jessica Minneci wishes she was able to use Barker's system to view more pieces of art.
    Tanit jarusan | Staff Photographer

 
 

A large majority of visually impaired people may never be able to fully appreciate many of history's great works of art ... unless they meet Sally Barker.

Barker, a retired CPA from Wilmington, Ohio, has developed a system, using a fabric color wheel to replicate some of the most famous paintings displayed in art museums around the world.

Barker recently visited Washington Junior High School to give visually impaired students in Naperville Unit District 203 their first "look" at some of history's more famous paintings.

Ironically, when Barker developed her Barker Code system in 2000, she did not know a single blind person and hadn't studied art since taking a course in college.

"I was walking through an art museum and the idea came to me that I once had a client who was deaf all her life but she still liked going to concerts," Barker said. "She'd take a balloon and feel the vibrations of the music in the balloon. I thought if there can be music for deaf people, how about art for blind people?"

After giving her plan much thought, Barker chose six common fabrics and assigned them to the three primary colors and three secondary colors.

She then worked the fabric like a quilt with the thickness of the batting under the fabric indicating how dark the color is: the harder the batting, the darker the color.

"I felt that six or eight textures would not be too many to memorize if they were distinctive enough, and that the fabrics that I chose would be available to anyone who can sew," she said.

Using her texture color wheel system, Barker has re-created 25 works including da Vinci's "Mona Lisa," Edvard Munch's "The Scream," Andrew Wyeth's "Christina World" and several other abstract pieces.

Some have taken weeks to complete while others have taken six months to a year. But all of them brought great joy to the Naperville students.

"This is the coolest thing I've ever tried," said Washington eighth-grader Hannah Hakes as she ran her fingers over the raised textures of the red sky portrayed in "The Scream." "I've heard of and learned about some of these paintings but never thought I'd get to feel the power of them myself."

Madison Junior High School eighth-grader Jessica Minneci was similarly moved by Barkers version of the "Mona Lisa."

"I can see a little but (Barker's) system really helps us feel the texture of the painting," she said. "Usually in art you have to feel the texture and emotions behind the picture. So it's easier to do that. It's also easier to understand what's going on in the painting. I think there's more art to this than the painting itself."

Lisa Ayala, mother of Riverwoods Elementary School fourth-grader Alex Ayala, said she hopes other talented artists and people handy with a sewing machine will adopt Barker's code. Ideally, museums would pick up the Barker Code or similar system, she said, so Alex and others could enjoy a trip to an art museum.

"We were at the Art Institute recently and I felt like I was constantly telling Alex not to get too close to the velvet rope and guards were watching," she said. "But I felt terrible because I knew for Alex to appreciate it, he has to get really close and he loves art. So this is great."

Barker said she has been discouraged by copyright attorneys and turned down by museums, so she tries to get her pieces in as many schools as possible to reach as many students as possible.

"I've been asked why I do this for blind people who may have been blind their whole lives and not even know what the colors look like," Barker said. "Abstract art isn't supposed to convey something that you know already. Its supposed to be something new or a memory. Blind people have feelings and memories, too."

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