These oak panels, featuring braille as part of their design, are part of a permanent installation at the Brunel building in Southmead hospital – a major healthcare facility in Bristol.
Initially, the commission was to make an artwork that would include words and phrases chosen by patient’s knitting and writing groups as being important to them. As part of the making process there also had to be an opportunity for patients, visitors and staff to try their hand at carving parts of it during two hospital open days.
On visiting Southmead, I realised that most wall-hung artworks there didn’t really give much opportunity for blind or partially-sighted people to interact with them. They were mainly prints behind glass.
Working with guidance from local braille users, together with organisations and blind artists from around the country (particularly Alan Michael Rayner), I designed a touch sculpture that also includes braille as a fundamental part. The Bristol Braillists group were particularly helpful with this area of the project. Paul and Hazel from the group even visited my workshop to give help and advice on the design.
Eventually, the installation developed into three panels. The largest one shows the patient’s groups knitting and writing, together with a carver (who might that be?). The knitting, writing and carving is spilling off the table to become a landscape with the important words and phrases written on it. In the top right-hand corner are well-known buildings in Bristol. Above it all is a description in braille, made from brass pins that have been fixed into the oak.
The second panel shows a much smaller version of the main panel (a bit bigger than A4 size), with different features labelled in braille. This was suggested by Camilla at Living Paintings, who pointed out that blind people can get ‘lost’ when feeling their way through a large area. This small orientation panel allows visitors who are using touch to work out where they are going on the larger artwork.
The third panel is a key to Grade one braille, so that sighted visitors who would like to work out what the braille on the other panels says can do so. There are several types of braille, with grade one being the simplest – a letter-by-letter translation. This inspired some discussion about whether it was the best form to use, as most British braillists use Grade two braille which is quicker to type out and to read. However, most users felt that people who weren’t so confident in reading braille and those from other countries would find this form easier to understand.
Once the panels had been fitted in March 2016, the installation was unveiled by the Chief Executive of NHS South-west, Andrea Young. She is standing in the centre of the photo below with Ruth, the arts director for Southmead, standing to the left of the picture. It was great to see that Paul and Hazel, who had helped in the design, could make it to the unveiling too.
I really appreciated the opportunity to explore new ways of interaction with public carved sculpture but also being given the chance to find out more, as a sighted person, about how blind and partially sighted people interact with the world around them. I hope that the things learnt can be incorporated into future projects and thank you to everyone who generously gave their time to help me with practical advice and suggestions.