Haptic Encounters with Georgina Kleege

On the left a tall white-haired woman stands dressed in black and holding a white cane, to her right a sculpture made of strips of paper and cardboard of a fox like creature, leaning back on its hind legs and one front leg resting behind its body, appearing to laugh, and towering over the woman.
Georgina Kleege and Blame/Thirst, a sculpture inspired by the Golem folk tale by Elisabeth Higgins O’Connor, 2017. Lumber, styrofoam, paint, bed sheets, domestic textiles, paper, 8 x 6 x 7 feet.

One of the many welcome features of the Jewish Folktales Retold exhibition at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco are the experimental access and interpretive materials created in collaboration with writer and professor Georgina Kleege.

Georgina is a leading scholar working at the intersection between blindness and visual art.  She is also the blind daughter of two visual artists. A professor of English and Disability Studies at UC Berkeley, Georgina has expanded the field of audio description through her practice.

The exhibition closes on Sunday January 28 and I urge everyone to visit and engage with the varied and magical works in the show, all inspired by one or more stories from Jewish folklore tradition. Folktales often portray the lives of ordinary people and usually feature magical or divine interventions that are often embellished or elaborated upon. While the stories have been re-told for centuries their basic linear form has remained the same. The exhibition casts the artist as storyteller or maggid, and powerful, complex tales are given tangible form and surprising re-interpretations by 16 selected contemporary artists, commissioned by the museum.

What are Haptic Encounters?

The word haptic refers to our sense of touch and these days is often used to describe the vibrating feedback functions on smartphones, touch tablets and virtual reality devices. Here though, we are far from the digital realm. While all other visitors (including those who are blind) may not touch the commissioned artworks, Georgina has engaged with six of the exhibits at length, and captured her experiences as she met each one.

Georgina’s role as maggid 

As a writer, Georgina’s immersion in the practice of story-telling provides us with an extra maggid, a voice directly connecting us to the art. Through her  artful encounters, touching and grappling with the scale and nature of each piece, our own experience is better. Her journey is sensory, enticing and decidedly not visual, and makes us all, as sighted or non-sighted visitors, slow down and spend more time with each art work. Like slow food, slow art is a very satisfying experience that has immense staying power.

Access elements

At six of the clearly marked listening stations with recordings of each folk tale, there are also audio files of these Haptic Encounters by Georgina. Videos, audio and transcripts of the encounters are also available online. Braille booklets of all wall text and artist labels are available at the reception desk, and large print booklets from a dispenser at the entrance of the gallery. Transcripts of all audio material from listening stations are also available, as well as a tactile gallery map developed in partnership with Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

For a taste of the video material please check out: Introduction to Haptic Encounters with Georgina Kleege

One side of The Enchanted, a sculpture featuring a long end of a low wooden table protrudes from a wall in mid air, with several white rubbery looking shapes placed on it, some are lit from within.
The Enchanted, a sculpture by Michael Arcega
The other side of The Enchanted sculpture features a long strip of wooden planking that resembles a boat protruding out from a wall. A man stands to the left and a woman with white hair stands to the right with a cane, holding a white, rubbery object in her right hand
A visitor stands with Georgina Kleege as she introduces The Enchanted, a sculpture by Michael Arcega

An evening at the museum

In December 2017, I spent a wonderful evening at the museum with a crowd of blind, visually impaired and other disabled visitors, led by Georgina and Cecile Puretz, Access and Community Engagement Manager of the of the CJM for a group exploration of Haptic Encounters. Our tour began in the lobby with an invitation to explore the architect’s model of the museum and an introduction by Cecile to the conceptual scope of the exhibition, and the museum’s determination to expand access for blind and visually impaired visitors. My photos of the evening were mostly out of focus so I only have a few to share here but I hope it will be enough to excite you about the work going on at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and the future possibilities for tactile explorations by other museums.

I noticed that while guiding us around the show, Georgina also used the word proprioception to expand our understanding of her process. Proprioception refers to the unconscious perception of movement and spatial orientation arising from stimuli within the body itself.  As Georgina explained, through her physical exploration of these large and varied sculptures, some invited a light, delicate touch, while others seemed to ask for a more vigorous handling. All very useful information for us, as visitors, who are not allowed to touch. The trolley of materials samples used by artists that traveled along with us was very useful and helped to understand the nature of each sculpture as we journeyed through.

Sheets of exquisite and handmade paper with complex textures, pale colors and central holes hang from the ceiling in a row. A tall woman with white hair and white cane holds a piece of paper. A woman to her right holds a pole with a smaller version of the sculpture. In the background a woman reads from a Braille folder and several people holding canes listen to the conversations.
Georgina Kleege and Cecile Puretz describe 200 Year Present, by Julia Goodman, 2017. Discarded and pulped bed sheets and t-shirts 78 x 168 x 44 in.

Why are these encounters valuable for everyone?

These are not stuffy, academic adventures and show how much the disability community can contribute to the field of museum interpretation. Georgina’s voice was that of a curious, playful, informed visitor who also risked making herself vulnerable with honest responses and comments. Similar projects could help many visitors feel welcome and relaxed in their own reactions to new and challenging work.

Within the limits of what is possible, the experience has provoked much thought about who gets to touch and who doesn’t. Only six encounters are on offer and so this is not a full equivalence for blind or visually impaired people, where every element is accessible. Nevertheless it is a welcome step, and left me wondering how to encourage artists to make work that is primarily tactile and robust. Does it really matter if we all touch an artwork that is due to be destroyed anyway?

Let’s keep pushing the boundaries of this kind of work!!!!

Useful links:

Haptic Encounters within Jewish Folktales Catalog

Jewish Folktales retold: The Artist as Maggid at the CJM

Digital Catalog for Jewish Folktales Exhibition

VIDEO: Introduction to Haptic Encounters with Georgina Kleege

Georgina has a new book out called “More than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art” available on Amazon and all good booksellers.



Studio visit with Claire Sherman

One of the things I love about the US is the sheer scale of the quilting universe here.  I relish the variety and availability of fabrics and haberdashery, the old quilts, the quilt shows, the Quilt Museum in San José, the collections in local museums, and the sheer number of people working in this field. The fabrics, the designs, the passing on of skills, the new approaches and radical departures are all fascinating and impressive. There are at least 21 million quilters here over the age of 18 and in 2010 the US quilt industry was worth at least $3.58 billion.*

Quilts also live in my imagination as the authentic beating heart of the US. Their history here and their unique beauty to carry messages and meanings that are tactile, personal, political and practical just plain fascinate me. The experimentation with geometry and pattern alone is quite overwhelming but when you add fabric quality, community, place and story-telling into them, the scope of fascination and creative possibility seems endless. Living in the Bay Area, I also love the contrast here between the dominant digital world, and the slow persistence of these creative, handcrafted and defiantly soft, emotional, and often talismanic works.

Amulet quilt, 12 x 12 inches in blue with elaborate geometric embroidery and central panel with hebrew text

Amulet quilt, 12 x 12 inches in blue with elaborate geometric embroidery and central panel with hebrew text

Claire Sherman is a quilt artist of skill and imagination. I met her through the 12 x 12 challenge run by the Textile Dream Studio in Berkeley. When I visited her home studio in early December 2017 the skies were drab and overcast and it was such a treat to feast on the color and textures she works with and creates.

She graduated in ceramics from the Rhode Island School of Design in the late 1970s. Inspired by architecture and old ruined buildings her early pieces were explorations of structures, space and spiritual ideas. She moved on from this conceptual work into making beautifully crafted ceramic Jewish ritual objects that she sold through outlets like Afikomen in Berkeley.

Her first quilt was a ‘crazy quilt’ made between the ages of 13 and 18, which she took away to college. Now Claire works in the modern quilt arena, which welcomes bold departures from repetitive patterns and symmetry for more abstract and experimental forms. Narrative can still play a role in the conception and execution of a finished work but the rules of traditional quilting are there to be broken and played with in playful and surprising ways.

I had the luxury of viewing the complete range of Claire’s output and I can only mention a few of her quilts here. Her regular blog has for more information and detail about the making process and the technical skills involved. I particularly enjoyed her ‘Baskets and Hot lemonade’ piece below, which is wonderfully colorful and whimsical in its use of shape, fabric and overall composition. Claire tells the story of the quilt’s evolution on her blog, and I love the idea of her liberating the traditional basket form after being inspired by Gwen Marston, another quilter. The delicate and precise work involved in finishing and completing every detail gives you some idea of Claire’s skill.

Detail of whimsical quilt featuring a cut-out of a cupcake added to green stem as if it were a fruit, with mottled green leaf to balance and a wavy quilting pattern over the whole design
Detail of quilt called ‘Baskets and Hot Lemonade’ featuring stem, leaf and cupcake ‘fruit’ by Claire Sherman
Bright blocks of color with object shapes such as a cup made out of a print of lemons and a basket made our of a print of strawberries.
Medium view of quilt called ‘Baskets and Hot Lemonade’ by Claire Sherman

Check out these upcoming quilting classes with Claire Sherman:

Very Variable Stars is at Hello Stitch Studio, 1708 University Ave., Berkeley, Sunday Feb 4, 10 am-1pm.  https://www.hellostitchstudio.com/product-page/very-variable-star-quilt.

Exploring the Hamsa: A Hands On Workshop, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley, Sunday Mar 4,  2-5 pm. http://catalog.lehrhaus.org/course/2018/winter/A150-BJ/

Claire’s blog is claireshermanart.com  


Useful quilting links:

Bay Quilts

East Bay Heritage Quilters


Modern Quilt Guild

Pacific International Quilt Festival

San José Museum of Quilts and Textiles

Social Justice Sewing Academy

Stonemountain and Daughter

Textile Dream Studio