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Visual art recast for the sightless

Joleen Oshiro
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Naomi Olson’s portraits of the blind are the centerpiece of the exhibit “Seeing Through the Heart,” opening at The ARTS at Marks Garage on Tuesday. Her subjects share their thoughts and feelings in captions that accompany the photographs. Finia, above, shares her favorite line from a descriptive movie: “When you want something very badly, set it free. If it comes back to you, it’s yours forever. If it doesn’t, it was never yours to begin with.” Finia also loves the beach.
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Betty Bell: “I’ve lost a house in a fire before; losing your sight is worse. When you are independent and drive, then have to relearn everything, it is most frustrating. You lose your self-confidence too.”
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Brandon Young stands in his front yard, with Olomana behind him. “I hear everyone say how beautiful it is here,” he told Olson. He thinks the place he was standing for the photo shoot was where his father had dug an imu for a luau last summer. “The grass is soft, no hard roots,” he explained.

Photographer Naomi Olson believes most folks rely heavily on sight to experience their environment. In Hawaii, with all its natural splendor, visuals dominate even more, she says.

‘Seeing Through the Heart: Portraits of the Blind in Hawaii’

On exhibit: Tuesday through July 23, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays

Where: The ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave.

Call: 521-2903 or visit www.artsatmarks.com

But what about folks who can’t see? The question stuck with Olson, so she decided to find out.

"I started meeting people with a variety of visual impairments, and the idea was born: How is Hawaii seen by someone without vision?"

The result of Olson’s research is "Seeing Through the Heart: Portraits of the Blind in Hawaii," opening Tuesday at the ARTS at Marks Garage.

The exhibit includes black-and-white portraits of blind residents in their favorite Hawaii locales, plus Braille narrations, sound descriptions, tactile imagery and artwork by the blind community.

Olson says she learned from her subjects that there are many ways to experience Hawaii.

"We don’t realize how the eyes take over. We don’t use our other senses," she says. "The people I met use touch — they can even feel the space around them — and smell — some of them can name specific beaches by smell."

The show itself illustrates this independence from sight.

Sound descriptions, for instance, offer objective descriptions of the visuals. The feature will be available with 12 pieces.

Tactile imagery, similar to raised maps, provides different shapes and textures for the blind to feel their way through the portraits. Olson worked with a specialist who simplified her photographs and created the images.

"Nothing is framed, everything is touchable," she says. "There are different levels of experiencing each image."

Olson, who grew up in Madison, Wis., studied filmmaking and has done lots of set, prop and production work in Hawaii. All the while, she painted, sculpted and shot photos in her spare time.

Six years ago she focused on photography.

"There’s magic in photography," she says. "You can convey something deeper than what you’re seeing. You can convey feelings."

For the project, Olson received assistance from Hawaii Association for the Blind, VSA Hawaii, National Federation of the Blind and the Center for Disability Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Ho‘opono, a branch of the state’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, blindfolded Olson for a day so she could experience what it’s like to not see.

The upshot for Olson is that the blind are really not all that different.

"We all have hopes, dreams and challenges. The blind are more similar than different to the rest of us," she says.

"The blind are so used to living in the shadows. They’re written off as disabled but are actually fully functional people. It’s only by saying ‘disabled’ that we disable people.

"For them it was great to get a little bit of spotlight. They appreciated that."


On the Net:

» www.naophotography.com

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