In the Hands of the Beholder: Artist Who Is Blind and Deaf Shares Why Not Doing Art Because You’re Blind Is No Longer an Excuse

Decades before Carol Saylor started to notice that the colors on her canvas were not as bright, and years before the sounds in the classroom and studio were reduced to a low hum, she chose a lifelong path steeped in creation and expression through the fine arts. She listened to her internal voice; she committed the spectrum of colors etched into her mind to memory. When the gradual deterioration of both her sight and her hearing started, Carol already had what she needed to continue on. She had years of human experience and observation, she had her imagination, and above all else, she had a vision.

Carol walked me around her home in Abington describing watercolor landscape paintings of marshlands, flower arrangements, and wilderness that hung on the walls. One of these framed paintings showed a stream, babbling through a quiet, forgotten forest. Knobby trunks and branches were draped with broad strokes of green, and sunlight poked through the lush forest ceiling, illuminating this secret hideout.

“This was from a remote place in Jersey called Silver Bay. My father had a boat, so we’d take it to these remote spots, drop anchor, and I’d sketch or paint what I saw. This one was done when I could see—before I’d even been to art school, before I had any training. I only knew that at my core, I was a painter, and it was my true love.”

After getting married and giving birth to her five children, Carol realized that she needed to take what she’d always loved doing and turn it into a career to support her growing family. She started at Montgomery County Community College then to a part-time program at Moore College of Art and Design and finished her last three years at Tyler School of Art at Temple University. Over the span of seven years, as a part-time student and full-time mother, Carol completed her degree (BFA Painting, BS Education) in 1976. She landed her dream job—teaching art at Lenape high school—which gave her the flexibility to work during the day and be home in time with her children in the evening.

After a few years in that job, Carol was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome. She’s been diagnosed with macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa, and Usher Syndrome by different specialists. “When they told me it would continue to get worse, I knew it meant that I’d have to leave my job. I never intended on leaving art though, and I still haven’t.”

Seeing with Your Mind’s Eye

At age 50, Carol enrolled in a program at the University of Pennsylvania to learn computer science and got a job on Penn’s campus shortly after. She took classes to learn braille in the evenings and continued painting on her own. She used her remaining tunnel vision and various alternative preparation methods until she couldn’t paint any longer. When Carol accepted that she was no longer able to paint, she found a way to transfer her initial artistic skill to one controlled by the sense of touch. She doesn’t need to see what she’s creating because she can feel every indent, curve, and angle in her mind’s eye.

“I remember the night it dawned on me that I was seeing with my fingers; I was seeing with my fingers and my hands, my arms, and my whole body, and I was still able to make sculpture. That was the night that I knew that I could go completely blind and still go on and make art,” Carol shared in one of the videos on her personal website. She realized that all the lessons she learned as a painter could be applied directly to sculpture. In the process, she also realized that she was not being forced to adapt or diminish her skills but expand and amplify them.

Transcending Through Touch

Looking around her home and studio, you’d never believe that the sculptures on each end table, lining the window sills, and filling shelves in every room, are the result of a career shift.

Dealing with some of life’s saddest moments—losing a son and a daughter, feeling her sight and hearing slip away over time—Carol turned to clay. Passing over each piece with your hands, you can feel the emotion crying out from seemingly expressionless faces. Electricity passes through the figures’ motionless bodies as they climb, stretch, and shield their faces from harm. As you feel around the figures that have been hollowed out to their core, you feel an emptiness, like a mother feels when losing a child, like a punch to the gut. These figures communicate a grief so profound they could send you to your knees. When Carol molded this clay with her hands, she passed along the internal experience from her body into the clay. For that reason, they are meant to be touched.

“This is art by the blind, for the sighted. I want every one of my pieces to be experienced tactually. In fact, I think the exhibits would speak even more to the sighted if they were told to walk into them with their eyes closed. You get a very different feeling that way.”

Visually Impaired Artists of Today

Carol believes that with today’s technology and services, the opportunities in art are broader than they’ve ever been. “In this day and age, it’s not considered impossible for blind and visually impaired individuals to get into art like it was in my time. Now, you’ll see lots of blind artists doing incredible things; they’re all proving that it’s not even a bit impossible.” From one artist to a community of budding or doubting individuals, Carol’s message is clear:

“Touch it, put your hands on it, I tell them… I think the blind have something to teach the sighted, and if they would pay attention, they can learn something from us.”

When she teaches classes for blind and visually impaired artists, she pushes for physical engagement and movement. Art is not static, and to receive the full, 360-degree experience of sculpture, you have to get out of your chair.

“When I go into these classrooms, the students are usually all seated at tables. Some of them have some sight, some don’t have any sight, but I think they should have the opportunity to stand up, go to the sculpture stand, move around, and feel the clay from all directions. This movement adds a very different experience to the act.”

Lending a Hand

Carol has also found that collaborating with other artists, teaching workshops to college students and community artists, and speaking about her process have allowed her to tap into a whole new energy around her art.

“There’s no reason that blind and visually impaired artists can’t ask for help. There’s no reason that art teachers and classmates can’t lend a hand.”

After meeting at Allens Lane art studio for blind and visually impaired artists in 2013, Carol and Armand Mednick have fused their artistic visions into one. Armand, a Holocaust survivor and veteran ceramicist (Tyler School of Art, BFA, BS in Education; Alfred University, MFA Ceramics) was drawn to Carol’s focus and concentration; in Armand, Carol found her spiritual, intellectual, and creative kindred spirit. They each bring their own emotional experience to the clay, and through manipulation and collaboration, these pieces evolve into something shared, something symbiotic.

Feeling Forward

At 80, Carol is eager to start her next series of projects. She has played around with wall hangings that integrate thread, wood, fibers, shells, and other natural materials. One, in fact, adorns her front door. “I’ve also started to fool around with using sound in my sculptures. I’m starting to see how I can use bells and vibrations in tandem with sculpture, and it’s really fun.”

People have said that art transcends the physical world, and clearly, that is true. It exists in the energies and spaces where it’s created; it can be perceived through sound, vibrations, flashing lights, and imagined scenes. Art can be in the eye of the beholder, and, it can be in the hands.

To learn more about Carol Saylor, visit her website.

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