The program ‘Form in Art’ gives people with sight limitations an outlet for creative expression.
It is well-known that famous composer Ludwig van Beethoven was deaf, but many of the most creative individuals throughout history suffered from disabilities as well.
Artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir coped with nearly debilitating arthritis. Edouard Manet, also a renowned artist, had a leg amputated, while artists Edgar Degas and Claude Monet were hampered by visual impairments.
Art isn’t defined by physical disabilities, and in the tradition of these inspiring artists, the Wills Eye Institute in Center City has unveiled its 23rd annual exhibition of works created by individuals living with impaired vision.
On Sept. 8, visitors gathered to tour more than 100 works of art created by students enrolled in Form in Art, a program of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Set up on the eighth floor of Wills Eye, at Eighth and Walnut streets, the public exhibit is free and comprises sculptures, paintings and a wide selection of handmade clothes and furniture.
Since its inception in 1972, the Form in Art program has helped individuals who are legally blind — a degree and duration of impairment defined by federal statute — to express themselves through their creativity.
“They get their own time in the museum, it’s designated just for them, and there are some exhibits they can touch,” said Jude Wise, a Form in Art coordinator, while explaining how the students — typically about 50 each year — are able to explore the art museum to seek inspiration from other artists.
Wise said the art museum provides touch tours and visual descriptions of artistic pieces to help students grasp the works in the galleries. Also, only about 20 percent of the visually impaired students who register for the program are totally blind, meaning that many of the artists can rely on visual references.
“Every year we try to make it new and refreshing,” said Wise.
In the years that the art museum has been presenting the program, Form in Art has blossomed to become quite popular, Wise said. In fact, after more than three decades, one of the original students is still an ongoing participant.
The Wills Eye Institute, long regarded for its treatment and research of vision conditions, started to exhibit the creations of Form in Art students in 1989, when Alice Lea Tasman, chairwoman of the annual art show at Wills Eye, came upon some of the students’ work during a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
“I said, ‘Why don’t we show these works as a beacon of hope at Wills?’” Tasman said during an interview last week. “It’s such a wonderful testimony to courage … I think it’s wonderful. I just love it, and I know the artists love it.”
Northeast resident and longtime student Margaret Bujas — she’s been part of the program for more than 20 years —truly loves the creative outlet.
“I love it … it really helps fulfill my creativity,” said Bujas, who lives in Millbrook.
Confined for the most part to a wheelchair, Bujas has multiple sclerosis and diabetes. At times she does wear leg braces. And though she can see, the diseases have severely damaged her vision, yet the Form in Art program has summoned a creative side that she never thought she had, Bujas explained.
“When I first went, I didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “But they really go out of their way to make you feel comfortable.”
During her two decades as a program participant, Bujas has watched her classmates open up while exposed to the creative expression of producing their artwork. Just as she did, others are finding avenues to express themselves in a world that may have seemed intimidating at first.
It’s an experience Bujas relishes so much that she doesn’t plan to stop attending Form in Art classes anytime soon.
“I’ll tell you this,” she said, “it’s something I’ll never drop out of.”
Julia A. Haller, ophthalmologist-in-chief for the Wills Eye Institute, said the health-care center loves to have the artwork on display. As a doctor, she sees firsthand how this creative outlet can help their emotional healing.
“It really proves that they are courageous. It proves they can contribute to society,” said Haller. “We really love the art and we are always sad when it leaves.” ••
The Wills Eye Institute, at 840 Walnut St., is hosting the free Form in Art exhibition through Sunday, Sept. 18. The free exhibit, on the eighth floor of the institute, features about 100 works of art created by visually impaired artists. Many of the artistic pieces are for sale. Proceeds of the art purchases go directly to the artists.
Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org