Reprinted from Nov. 18, 2012:
Lise Funderburg teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania; her latest book is "Pig Candy: Taking My Father South, Taking My Father Home."
On a recent Wednesday morning, the sun-flooded basement of Mount Airy's Allens Lane Art Center buzzed with activity. As students arrived, volunteers pulled unfinished projects off shelves, setting onto long work tables the hunks of clay that had been molded into reclining nudes and cats and devil masks, slip-cast sculptures and hand-formed coil pots. Lively conversation was punctuated by bursts of laughter and the intermittent whirring of two small potters' wheels. Controlled chaos reigned.
"I need a red," Frank Madison called out to his teacher, Carol Konopinski. His hands rested on a tall vase that had dried and was ready for color. "Apple red," he clarified.
"What did you make?" asked fellow student Michael Gieschen from across the table. Gieschen was busily brushing glaze onto the narrow-necked vessel whose surface he'd texturized for tactile interest.
"You wanna feel it?" Madison offered, holding out his pot.
"No, thanks," said Gieschen. "I got my hands all in glaze."
Feeling is seeing for Madison and Gieschen. Both men are legally blind, which is the prerequisite for enrolling in Vision Thru Art, a weekly class that the center has run for the last 25 years. Madison lost his sight two decades ago after an accident left him with detached retinas; Gieschen can still see shadows and general shapes. Like several others here, he has retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited degenerative disease.
At 54, Gieschen is one of the youngest students. Before he lost his sight, he was a graphic artist, and so this class provides an outlet for his creative impulses, evidenced in his ever-expanding inventory of sculptures, including a large dragon with fabric wings. The weekly gathering also offers community, the rare gift of people who understand.
"The instructors are great," he said, referring to Konopinski and the recently arrived Armand Mednick, a ceramicist and retired art teacher. "But it's also being with the other students and being able to share ideas and talk about common problems. The thing about this kind of disability is that people tend to stay in their safety zones, at home, in isolation. This gets us out of the house."
Conversations ranged in tone from pathos to bathos. Frank Madison announced that using the wheel, as Mednick taught him to do, was his new love. The comment was overheard by Kent Anderson. "I thought it was me," Anderson cracked.
In the next room, a man who had recently lost his sight talked about how overwhelmed he was. "It's all new to me," he said. "Sometimes I sit slumped in a chair and can't get up."
The man opposite him listened without rushing to give false comfort; instead he bore witness to how radically their worlds had been altered. "After all these years I try to cry," he said, "and I can't even do that anymore."
For the next few minutes, the men worked on their projects in silence.
Even to a first-time visitor, it was clear that art of all kinds was being made here: out of clay, yes, but also out of humor and deep feeling, respect and relationships. Limited vision, at least in these rooms, is irrelevant.
"Nobody copies from nobody here," joked Ron Bryant, a former chef who used to make ice sculptures and carved food displays so pretty, he said, that people were afraid to eat them. In class, Bryant has been working on a series of sculpted vases almost two feet tall, all cast in the mold he designed. One sat in front of him this morning, with shavings of clay scattered around its base.
He reached for a wood-handled carving tool, feeling its wire tip to make sure it was the one he wanted. "We don't cheat and we don't need models," he continued. "We get inspired."
The class inspires its teachers, as well. Konopinski, who runs Allens Lane's box office and studio, started volunteering in the class in 2009, helping out its beloved founding teacher, Bob Fluhr. When Fluhr died last year, she took over. "Wednesday is the best day of the week," she said.
Mednick, who had been a classmate of Fluhr's in art school, originally came to the center to join its pottery guild. But once Konopinski learned of his association with Fluhr and that he'd been an art teacher at the Oak Lane Day School for 50 years, she asked whether he'd consider helping out.
"It's a gift and a blessing feeling useful again," said the 79-year-old Mednick, who has been uplifted by the students' remarkable grit, persistence, patience and good humor. Because of his own physical limitations, he leaves the heavy lifting to Konopinski, but otherwise he gives the students his all, surprised and pleased to have what he calls a "third act before dying."
Fittingly, Mednick used a visual term to describe the experience. "The class has been a revelation for me," he said.