Lisa Squirrel has congenital glaucoma, and lost most of the sight in her left eye by the time she was 13. Now, with limited sight in her right eye also, she regularly leads audio description tours in the gallery.
Here she explores how her shared memories of visual experiences allow her to create images in the mind of those she speaks to, many of whom are visually impaired themselves, and how those experiences can be truly individual.
I have congenital glaucoma, it is a degenerative disease, so at this point I have no vision in my left eye at all and haven't since I was about 13, and have very limited vision in my right eye. The audio descriptive tours are designed for people who have limited vision or no vision at all. I give an hour and a half audio descriptive tour giving detailed descriptions of the paintings. I've seen a lot of these paintings and things that I talk about. I do have extensive vision lexicon to draw from which obviously somebody who hasn't seen for their whole life doesn't have.
My husband is extremely supportive and very patient and helpful. He will come along with me beforehand to go through the exhibition. And then I come home with all of that material and I then work actually with my mother. We have a shared lexicon of visual memory. So for example with the Turner painting Sunset from the top of the Rigi which I describe; a very difficult painting for both my husband and my mother to describe. What helped was her being able to say when we would drive down the canyon in the Rocky Mountains and you could see the fog coming in over the valley, I remember that. So I can draw on those types of memories.
“These become like somebody is looking through cataracts, like you're looking through a mist and it's just washes of colour…”
Painting is a blind man's profession because a painter paints not what he sees but what he feels. So I think that the main thing is getting across that emotional reaction that somebody has when they look at a piece of artwork for the first time or a piece of artwork they might remember and then have that brought back to them by looking at it.
"They’re kind of blues, mixed together, sort of softer and darker blues…”
Describing paintings to someone or pieces of artwork to someone who's never seen before, particularly paintings is very difficult.
“Many people in it with oars sticking out the sides…”
After I gave my first tour there was a gentleman who came up after the tour and said that he hadn't seen since he was two, and so had no memory of colour really, and I said well, what do you think of, when somebody says blue what comes to your mind? And here I was thinking it would be something like ice or something cold or water, and he said jeans, and I said "why? Why jeans?" And he said because "everybody tells me that jeans are blue and my jeans are blue. So I think of jeans and the texture of jean fabric".
Often all of these things are dependent on the individual and what background they have, what memories they have and how to tap into that and try to get at what kind of description is going to be the most successful for them. I suppose I hope that when people have been on one of the tours that I give that they'll walk away having had as close to the same type of experience that any goer to a gallery would have, so that people can create their own opinion about the works that I've been describing to them.