We can feel a sculpture — its contours, its texture — but how do you sense a flat, two-dimensional painting or photograph without the benefit of your eyes?
What if you were allowed to touch a picture and instead of perceiving green trees or blue skies with your eyes, you felt them with your fingertips and could "read" the landscape through its differing textures?
Where there's a will, there's a way and that way has been found by photographer Stephen Cunic, who has developed a process that makes visual art — previously inaccessible to the visually impaired — come to life through the sense of touch.
"Life Accessible — Photography Beyond the Limits of Sight," opening Jan. 8 in the Banko Family Gallery at the Banana Factory, Bethlehem, features eight works that upgrade photography from the two-dimensional level to the three-dimensional. It's among a series of exhibits and other arts events that are part of a year-long "Arts and Access" initiative by the Lehigh Valley Arts Council and the Lehigh Valley Partnership for a Disability Friendly Community in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The exhibit features photographic techniques much like how Braille is used to read words. Photographs have layers of ink that have been built up to create a topography of reliefs and textures.
The works are landscape scenes of the breathtaking beauty in Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park, which Cunic took earlier this year. In that landscape, Cunic found a variety of textures in the rocks, sand, grass and trees that he was able to translate into high relief on a flat surface.
What elevates Cunic's work is a complex printing process in which the surface of the sand actually has a different feel or texture than that of the rocks or the trees or the grass.
"Someone who's visually impaired can touch a pine tree, but they can never visually see the shape of the entire pine tree itself," he says. "This will be a new experience ... that's what's important, that they can interact with these shapes in the world."
What would be an impasto surface in painting, Cunic transfers to photography in a very subtle way. For example, one of his larger pieces, a 35-by-48-inch landscape of Hot Spring Meadow in Yellowstone, allows viewers to feel the texture of the rock-covered mountains, the fine branches of pine trees and the grainy surface of the grass in the foreground. Other works allow visitors to trace the hairs of Alaskan mountain horses.
"Michelangelo wanted a painting that looked like sculpture," Cunic says. "I wanted a photograph that looked like a statue."
Born and raised in Allentown, Cunic runs the family business Signs by Tomorrow on Tilghman Street in Kuhnsville. Photography, particularly of wildlife and nature, has always been his passion. "I've spent my whole life in the woods," he says.
"I've always been inspired by Ansel Adams and conservation," he says. "I want to make the mundane monumental,"
For the past year, he has been working on his printing process in his shop, combining black and white and color printing into a layered effect through digital photography combined with his sign-making printing process. Using an Olympus E-M1 SLR digital camera because he says, "it's lighter for my field work," he then spends about 10 to 15 hours creating each photo in his studio.
Cunic builds up around 30 to 40 layers of ink, with the bottom layer in black and white with printed color inks on top. Each photograph is printed on aluminum compound material.
"It's based on contrast and the absence of light," Cunic says. "This takes my passion for dark room work and brings it into digital. I stay very true to what I do in the dark room."
In May he showed some of the results of this process to Janice Lipzin and Deb Miller, former and current ArtsQuest director of visual arts, who were enthusiastic about his work and invited him to exhibit.
While the works weren't designed for the visually impaired, Cunic says, the result is the same.
Cunic's exhibit is showing along with "Mikayla's Voice," which features the work of Mikayla Resh, a 19-year-old from Nazareth who has brain damage since she was an infant. Resh learned to create large acrylic paintings using the wheels of her wheelchair.
"Mikayla's Voice" is on display and continues through Feb. 7 in the Banana Factory's Hallway. Also on display are paintings by students that Mikayla taught to paint through the Wheels of Friendship program.
"The Banana Factory is excited to bring these two wonderful exhibitions to our galleries, helping to make the arts more accessible to a broader audience through innovative and creative approaches to art," says ArtsQuest Director of Visual Arts Stacie Brennan.
Tim Higgins is a freelance writer.
Jodi Duckett, editor.
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What: Photographs by Steve Cunic that can be touched by the visually impaired; part of the Lehigh Valley Arts Council's year-long Arts & Access celebration, commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Where: Banana Factory, Frank Banko Gallery, 25 W. Third St., Bethlehem.
When: Through Feb. 28
Hours: 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Opening reception: 6-9 p.m. Jan. 8 as part of South Bethlehem's First Friday. Also, for Mikayla's Voice