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Close Your Eyes And See This Art At Seattle Art Museum

Donnie Wilburn, who is blind, and her husband Bob Wilburn observe a depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn at the Seattle Art Museum with the help of a vivid description from museum docent laureate Suzanne Ragen.
KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott
Donnie Wilburn, who is blind, and her husband Bob Wilburn observe a depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn at the Seattle Art Museum with the help of a vivid description from museum docent laureate Suzanne Ragen.

Read this description, then imagine the art:

It’s a large ceramic jar, created in the 12th century by the Anasazi people who lived in the Southwest and the Colorado plateau.

The decoration on the jar is black and white, and there are stripes, likely to represent rain. Jagged embellishments could mean lightening.

“Then strange little hands, some with five fingers some with six fingers,” says docent Suzanne Ragen, who leads tours for the visually impaired at Seattle Art Museum. She has led tours at SAM for 50 years. 

Ragen describes the jar to Camille Jassny, who is visually impaired. It’s not easy for Jassny to access the rich history and cultural legacy handed down through art, from Roman statuary to Native American beaded moccasins.

“I can’t independently go into a museum,” she says. “I can’t really read anything. I can’t walk along and look. So for me, the difference is the docent brings each piece of art to life.”

Seattle Art Museum is one of a growing number of institutions working to find new ways to open up the experience of art for people who can’t see it.

For today’s tour, Jassny follows Ragen through a special exhibition of Native American art with her guide dog Brietta, who looks a little bored. 

When she points out the ceramic jar, she also notes its political history.

The Anasazi people, “disappeared in the 16th century, nobody knows why, ecological, or political or by war,” she explains. 

LISTEN: Hear Ragen's description of a piece, then click link below for image


Seattle Art Museum is one of many large institutions across the country that lead regular tours for the vision-impaired. Ragen uses metaphors, comparisons, whatever she can to create a mind’s-eye picture for her group.

“Some of our visitors never had sight, they don’t have a memory of color, so how do you describe what blue, sky blue is?”

Ragen led her first tour like this in 2007 when the organization Lighthouse for the Blind brought in a group to visit a show of Roman sculptures from the Louvre museum.

“I remember talking about a big sculpture of Marcus Aurelius, and I said, ‘OK, how’s this going?’ And they said, ‘Tell us about the room we’re in, what color is it, how high are the ceilings.’ And I realized, they need to orient themselves in the space, and that was before you did anything else, let them know what their space is like,” she says.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Donnie Wilburn is interviewed by KUOW's Marcie Sillman at the Seattle Art Museum about its access program for visually impaired patrons.", "fid": "116441", "style": "placed_full", "uri": "public://201503/IMG_5309.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]LISTEN: Ragen describes two Native American baby carriers


Even though Ragen can see the works she talks about, leading these tours has transformed the way she thinks about the art at SAM. “It makes you look at the objects so differently than you would otherwise. You notice details it wouldn’t occur to you. When you have to start describing what you are seeing in words, it’s almost a whole different piece of art.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Docent laureate Suzanne Ragen sits between docent Donnie Wilburn and patron Camille Jassny, who are both visually impaired, at the Seattle Art Museum (along with Jassny's guide dog, Brietta).", "fid": "116442", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201503/Group1.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Kara McDermott"}]]

Donnie Wilburn, Ragen’s friend and longtime fellow docent, is also part of the tour. Wilburn lost her sight several years ago, a rare side effect after she underwent a major surgery. Even though she couldn’t see anymore, Wilburn didn’t want to lose her ties to the museum, or to the art she loves so she helped create the first ACCESS tours.

“I find that it’s, for me, wonderful to know there are many other possibilities to enjoy the arts just like everybody else. They’re so important, they provide a window to really understanding our world,” she says.  

Wilburn doesn’t lead tours anymore. But as a docent laureate, she reviews the ACCESS tour scripts. Right now she’s really excited about the possibility of expanding the opportunities for people with vision impairment to touch the art:

“I had a person last night tell me more about this touch. I’ve got vision, but I love to touch. Everybody does,” she says. “It would be wonderful in every museum – wouldn’t you love to touch?”

Seattle Art Museum has monthly ACCESS tours for people with limited vision. The next one is a limited touch tour April 25 through the Native American show “Indigenous Beauty.”

LISTEN: Ragen describes "The Battle of the Little Bighorn"