Travel

Inside the First Art Gallery for Blind Artists and Audiences

Feel free to touch the art at Envision Arts Gallery in Wichita, Kansas.

Envision Arts Gallery
Envision Arts Gallery
Envision Arts Gallery

A few years back, I was at an art gallery in Sweden and leaned a little too close to check out the paint job on a particular piece. Suddenly all sorts of alarms were chirping around me, alerting everyone in the gallery to the fact that I was too close to the art! They didn’t kick me out or anything, but it was a bit embarrassing, to say the least. Because as we all know, art in galleries is meant to be observed, and not touched.

That creates a big problem, though, for visually impaired people who can’t actually see the art. How can they tell what a piece looks like if they can’t feel the hard ridge of paint left after a swipe of the brush, or the delicate stubble of a pointillism portrait?

Envision Arts Gallery in Wichita, Kansas, is solving that problem. It’s the first art gallery in the United States created by and for the visually impaired community. All of the art exhibited here is meant to be touched – something the staff had to push me to do when I visited, because I was so conscious of the rules at other galleries.

Photo courtesy of Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center
Photo courtesy of Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center
Photo courtesy of Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center

Envision Arts’ program manager Sarah Kephart notes that through the gallery’s mission of providing opportunities for artists and audiences with visual disabilities, there’s an opportunity not just to build and strengthen the community and improve quality of life, but also to close a gap in the art world. Envision’s programming “enhances creative diversity and gives agency to individuals who have long been marginalized in the field of expressive arts,” she said.

That inclusivity and agency begins from the literal ground up. The floor at Envision is covered with white ridged lines-cord covered over with tape-so people using sight canes are able to walk to each art piece. On the walls, each piece of art has a QR code for a spoken description of the artwork, and braille displays for each artist’s name and title of the piece. And, of course, all the artwork is meant to be touched.

Envision Arts Gallery
Envision Arts Gallery
Envision Arts Gallery

When I visited, I ran my fingers along the textured interiors of large kintsugi bowls in the Golden Repair exhibit, featuring work by Black and disabled artists Ciara McCaughy, Larrida Murphy, and Brandon Murphy. As part of the Wrap, Cross, Repeat exhibit, I squished around sculptures wrapped in rubber by blind artist Monte Arst, who has always loved the smell of fresh rubber, and felt the ripples of repeating patterns in paint by artist Jenny Knapp-patterns that represent the repeated daily behaviors of visually impaired people that allow them to have control over their lives.

Envision Arts Gallery
Envision Arts Gallery
Envision Arts Gallery

Exhibits at the gallery change every three months. The current one on display (through July 28), Masterpiece Relief for the Blind, actually shows artwork from a sighted artist, Tomas Bustos, from Dallas, Texas. It’s the first time the gallery has shown work from an artist with full sight. Bustos is a sculptor, and his work recreates famous artwork into tactile pieces for the blind and visually impaired to experience. His tactile versions of Starry Night and the Mona Lisa are on display, as well as a brand-new piece-a bronze-cast recreation of American Gothic by Grant Wood. It was a long process to make the latter. Bustos sought out permission from Nan Wood Graham, the painter’s sister who modeled for the woman in the portrait, to create his project, noting that this would finally allow people with sight impairments to enjoy the painting as well. At first, Graham (who died in 1990, if that gives you an idea of how long this took) denied Bustos. Eventually, though, he convinced her and she acquiesced in writing. And now, Bustos says, everyone can “see” it.

“As an artist, I can create and make anything I want to,” Bustos, said in a press release. “But I’m not doing this for myself. I’m doing this for a whole community [of people who are blind or visually impaired] who have never been able to see original works.”

Photo courtesy of Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center
Photo courtesy of Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center
Photo courtesy of Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center

Envision Arts has only been open since January 2022, but the reception has been stellar, Kephart says. They’ve already held 16 exhibitions in the space with work from about 250 artists, and more than 5,000 people have come to visit. The artists are making money from the gallery as well; of the $25,000 in sales over the last year, $15,000 of it went directly to the artists.

Each exhibition has a community art aspect to it as well. With Bustos’s exhibit, Envision hosted a sculpture workshop for the blind and visually impaired where participants created their own small-scale clay projects. During my visit, the exhibits were paired with an art project of creating found poetry-verses made from random words cut out of magazines, newspapers, or other materials.

Photo courtesy of Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center
Photo courtesy of Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center
Photo courtesy of Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center

It’s free to visit the art gallery, located at 801 East Douglas, Suite 106, in Wichita. They’re open Monday through Friday from 10 am to 5 pm. All proceeds from merchandise or art purchased go directly to the artists.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Jennifer Billock is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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