The sculpture class at Allens Lane Art Center in Mount Airy is in full swing. One student is glazing. Another is wedging clay to remove air bubbles.
Occasionally the group walks around to look at one another's work, although "look" in this case means gently feeling it with their fingers. It is a tactile experience by necessity: All the participants in this class are legally blind or visually impaired.
While the class is a story in and of itself - it has been offered for 57 years, now in its third venue - this is not a tale about how blind artists find their way around an art studio. It is, however, about how a student and teacher found each other, "about falling madly, totally in love when I thought it could never happen again," says Armand Mednick, 80, the class' co-instructor.
He is referring to Carol Saylor, 75, a watercolorist until she started to lose both her sight and her hearing in her mid-40s. Saylor is now a sculptor. Both she and Mednick graduated from Tyler School of Art in Elkins Park, but at different times - Mednick in 1958 with a degree in graphics and ceramics, and Saylor in 1976 with a degree in painting - and they had never met until Saylor showed up for class in October.
For Mednick, it was love at first sight. "I noticed immediately how beautiful she is, and then I noticed her independence, her ability to work on her own and create amazing pieces of art. . . . I sat down, grabbed her hand, and it just clicked."
He says he feels like a teenager again, "if being a teenager means uncensored blabbing about the person you love to anyone who will listen." In Mednick's world, that includes "my barber, my doctor, the superintendent of my building, friends in my poker club, everyone."
As for Saylor, "meeting Armand was incredible. Because he went to Tyler, he knew all the same people I did, but he knew them better. I loved every minute I was a student there, but when I graduated, it was over. No one I knew was talking about art. Then suddenly here is Armand saying to me, 'Have you ever heard of Brancusi?' I practically shouted, 'Yes, I have!' It was such a wonderful reawakening to that time."
Art has played a sustaining role in both their lives. Mednick retired in 2010 from Oak Lane Day School in Blue Bell, where he taught ceramics for 50 years. Saylor was an art teacher at Lenape Junior High in Doylestown until her disability became too severe; now she offers classes to students and other art instructors.
"We agree on so many things," says Saylor, who with the help of hearing aids can decipher the voices of people next to her. "Politics, art, religion. And we have both been through a lot of loss and grief and sickness. We share those experiences as well."
Born in Brussels, Belgium, Mednick and his family escaped the Holocaust by posing as Christians for four years in Volvic, France, leaving in 1947 to join relatives in the Philadelphia area. His grandparents and most of his cousins died in concentration camps in Poland. Mednick's testimony about that period is part of the Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Archive.
Both have lost family members to cancer - Mednick's wife of 45 years, and Saylor's husband of 35 years and her daughter, who died at age 32. In 2008, Mednick had surgery to remove a cancerous portion of his left lung. Saylor, who grew up in Abington, has Usher syndrome, a genetic disorder characterized by gradual loss of sight and hearing. Mednick has one son. Saylor has four children, 10 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Saylor describes herself as "deaf-blind. That is very different from being blind. Blindness . . . is a piece of cake. You can still communicate with people; you can overcome some of the hardships with the help of technology, a cane, a Seeing Eye dog." Deafness and blindness together clearly makes communication more difficult, but not impossible. For example, when she does workshops, including presentations to art teachers on the challenges of working with the disabled, she wears a wireless microphone that communicates to her hearing aids.
Saylor recently bought Mednick a set of braille playing cards, "which I'm still trying to figure out," he says. "We are finding ways to do things together that we like." That also includes volunteering with deaf-blind children at the Overbrook School for the Blind and giving workshops for blind students at local art centers.
Meanwhile, Mednick is helping Saylor navigate the sidewalks around his Mount Airy neighborhood so she and her Seeing Eye dog can be more independent when she visits. Mednick walks behind Saylor, describing the terrain ahead. "Armand is extraordinary that way," Saylor says. "Sometimes when you try and explain to someone how to deal with a blind person, they don't always get it. Armand just gets it." When they walk out together, Mednick says, they hold hands or she holds his arm.
Indeed, for Saylor, love - of Armand and of art - is in the touch, and the works she displays in shows are what she calls her "touch pieces," sculptures with openings and textures that invite viewers to "put your hand inside and feel things that you can't see. When I start out to create a sculpture, I use different parts of my hands - my whole arm if it's a big piece - to get the abstract shape, and then I just keep going back and back and back. . . . It's sensuous because in addition to touch, there is smell and vibration." Sighted people, Saylor says, "need to see that blind people have a lot to teach them about art. Most people think it's the opposite."
During any given class, one might see Mednick with his hands over Saylor's on the pottery wheel. "Whenever I can," he says, "I come over and whisper in her ear . . . ."