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Updated 11:00 AM May 17, 2005




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U-M artist uses clay to inspire vision-impaired youth

The number of visually impaired students from metro Detroit who participate in Associate Professor of Art Sadashi Inuzuka’s “Outreach Teaching for the Visually Impaired” program has tripled over six years.
Keithetta Hicks (left), a 3rd grader at Marquette Elementary School in Detroit, shares a laugh with Sadashi Inuzuka. Heather Larocca (right), an Art + Architecture junior, assists the class. (Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services)

Why is it popular? “Regular education art classes don’t know what to do with visually impaired students,” says Paul Stark, orientation and mobility specialist with the Detroit Public Schools who brought a group last week from Washington Careers school to the Art and Architecture Building on North Campus. “This gives them an opportunity to get involved in art in a really creative way.”

He suggested that the U-M workshop helps fill a hole in the students’ learning caused by state budget cuts to local school districts, which often impact the arts.

Inuzuka started the program following a series of presentations and workshops at U-M with Hohei Nishimura, a Japanese educator who works with blind children.

Visually impaired himself—Inuzuka has retinoschisis, which keeps him from driving and makes it difficult to read—he began scheduling daily two-hour workshops for visually impaired students during the two weeks after regular classes end, in late April and early May.

Participation has grown from 20 the first year to more than 60 this year. Students range in age from 5-26, but most are in middle school.

Tenisha Cross, a Detroit teenager who attends Washington Careers, sculpted a small bed from clay, complete with headboard, and brushed it with purple paint. “It’s my favorite color,” says Cross, whose purple top with white stripes emphasizes the point.

She likes clay: “It’s the gooey stuff, it’s soft. And I like to paint.” Her piece will be covered with a clear glaze for firing.

Earlier, Cross followed Inuzuka’s suggestion that students create something evoked by spring. She made a grill, flattening clay strips to make the grill surface, and covered it with clay-fashioned meatballs and hamburgers.

Inuzuka says students with the least sight can show the most creativity: “You ask them to make a flower; they don’t know exactly the look of a flower, but they may know the feel of a flower. It’s more about the essence of a flower.”

A student’s introduction to clay can be affected by his or her disability. “There are some students who can see the color and some who cannot see at all,” Inuzuka explains.

But clay is a versatile teaching tool. “It’s an extremely tactile material, it just feels good when you touch it, whatever you do. You pinch the clay and it is changed, immediately. It has been praised as a very old material for art, it was used very early on in human culture.

“I want them to start right away and dig into the clay, whatever they want to do to warm up, it’s up to them. I want their ideas to come out, rather than say ‘Let’s make this.’ Some know exactly what they want to make—something like a vase for their mother. Some make imaginative animals.

“As adults we sometimes lose some imagination or creativity. You can learn from students, who can be so freethinking. Sometimes students work together if they are good friends, it’s nice to see those things.”

If students need some direction on how to get started, Inuzuka typically will suggest making a clay pizza. That’s fitting—the 10 a.m.-noon workshops end when it’s unrealistic to expect school buses to make it back to cafeterias in time for lunch, so they get real pizza before the ride back.

“A lot of kids don’t have this opportunity; their art teacher may not be trained in clay,” said Mary Beth Kullen, of the Greater Detroit Agency for the Blind and Visually Impaired, who helps organize the students’ visits from Detroit, Livonia, Lincoln Park and Washtenaw County.

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