Blind artist has his first one-man public show

Monday, October 5, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 4:49 p.m. CDT, Monday, October 5, 2009
Aaron Johnson works on one of his unfinished quilts at school in Kansas City, Kan., Sept. 24. Johnson creates art despite his blindness from a brain tumor when he was 13. A.J. 's art will be the feature of a one-man show on display through Accessible Arts at the Kansas School for the Blind beginning Sept. 30.

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Aaron Johnson pushes the pieces of fabric underneath the rapidly moving needle, sewing together the front and back of his quilt.

"There's a seam," his teacher, Kit Bardwell, says just above a whisper with her mouth only inches away from her student's ear. "It needs to be flatter."

Johnson feels the seam. He feels how his fingers can make the fabric smooth enough to glide under the sewing machine's foot.

It's a quilt the young artist will never see. Johnson is blind.

But he feels his art being created.

The material is the mismatched kind typical of the donation pile from where it came: a square of burlap-like hot pink fabric sewn to another square of fabric with a pattern of masks set against a faded aqua background.

On Wednesday, the quilt will be part of a first-time event for the Accessible Arts program at the Kansas State School for the Blind: a one-man art show open to the public.

Johnson, 18, said he lost his sight after cataract surgery in the summer of 2004. He was 13 and living in New York City, where he was born.

In February 2005, he moved to live with family members in Junction City, Kan. By the time he enrolled in Accessible Arts in spring 2005, the Kansas City, Kan., school had been offering ceramic and painting classes to the students for about two years.

Accessible Arts offers a variety of programs to children with disabilities, ranging from week-long arts summer camps, dancing and drumming workshops and classes at area schools.

For Johnson, it's a chance to continue something he has loved since he was a young child.

"I have always done art," Johnson said. "I love art."

Johnson, a senior, is unusual among blind people, said Bardwell, Accessible Arts' program director.

"He still has highly active visual imagery," she said. "It often doesn't stick. ... He has a clear visual idea. You watch him and clearly he knows exactly where he wants to go."

Johnson said creating art comes to him in stages.

He first imagines what he wants to make. Sometimes it's something he remembers how it looks, such as a teacup or a dinosaur. Sometimes it's something he remembers from a dream, such as riding a winged animal.

"I go through my memories," he said.

As Johnson creates — whether it's a drawing or a piece of pottery — what he sees in his mind slowly changes from what he imagines to what he feels.

Bardwell said Johnson is the only student at the school who can center or shape his clay on a spinning potter's wheel.

Johnson's show on Wednesday will include drawings, pottery, pens for which he created the barrels, his quilt and a CD he made with classmates.

"The CD is wholesome, reggae, no bad words," Johnson said.

This young man's creativity goes beyond the walls of the former carriage house where Accessible Arts classes meet on the School for the Blind campus. In the school's woodworking shop, Johnson made a wooden pinball machine and a wooden rocking dog so large he can sit on it.

He has created his own talking book series, tapes accompanied by Braille writing, called the Kingdom of Magic Town.

Bardwell said Wednesday's art show is a great model for the other students.

Invitations, including dozens done by Johnson in Braille, were made.

Accessible Arts will be paid a small percentage of the proceeds for organizing the show, just like a professional gallery show.

"He's showing that you don't have to have sight to have a career in the arts," Bardwell said.

Johnson hopes to make $700 at the art show.

"I'm going to put it in my bank account," he said. "And then I'd like to have $1,000."

And the future?

"I probably will go to art school," he said.

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