C/O Olivia Brouwer
Hamilton artist Olivia Brouwer creates accessible artwork to bridge the gap between individuals of varying visual abilities
By: Serena Habib, Contributor
One of the major changes brought about by the current COVID-19 pandemic has been the shift away from physical contact touch in an effort to prevent transmission of the virus from surfaces. This shift, however, has also become a barrier for those who use braille to communicate.
Olivia Brouwer is a local Hamilton artist and the 2021 recipient of the City of Hamilton’s creator award. She has been creating art that expresses her experiences with blindness and is accessible to those with visual impairments. The pandemic has amplified the challenges visual impairment can bring and highlighted the importance of her work.
“Blind people cannot communicate as they did before,” said Brouwer.
Brouwer was raised in Mount Hope, Hamilton by a family filled with creativity. She has always loved art and when she entered the joint program in Art and Art History offered by University of Toronto Mississauga and Sheridan College in 2012, she knew she wanted to focus on painting. Focusing on oil painting, acrylics and watercolours with a specialization in printmaking, Brouwer realized during her third-year that her artwork revolved around a common theme: blindness.
For as long as she can remember, Brouwer has been partially blind in one eye. She wanted to produce work that responded to the questions her blindness implored her to ask.
“Especially in high school, it was hard to kind of talk about and I was just very self-conscious about it,” said Brouwer. “I just thought I'd make art about it . . . as a way to talk about my disability.”
Brouwer was also drawn to the idea of how people perceive the unknown and over time, her work has also become more spiritual. After graduating, Brouwer realized she needed to analyze blindness for herself. In her work stitching braille Bible passages relating to parables about spiritual blindness, visual blindness is used as a metaphor for faith and spirituality. To Brouwer, this was about looking into herself to determine whether she was being spiritually aware and spiritually seen.
“It kind of reminds me of looking back on my life . . . looking back on all of these stories and trying to spiritually see what needs to change,” explained Brouwer.
As we emerge from the pandemic and begin to return to our previous routines, Brouwer’s collection can encourage us to look at ourselves and our lifestyles in an attempt to decipher what brings meaning into our lives. However, Brouwer’s current Contact Kits remind us to look beyond ourselves and explore with different senses as we return to routine and interact with our environment.
Each kit comes in a silkscreen-printed cardboard box. Inside the box is a painting; different mediums and tactile surfaces are incorporated into every painting. The painting is covered by a removable sheet of frosted mylar with a smooth, plastic texture. Brouwer cuts teardrop shapes out of the mylar and then embosses them in braille by carving templates on Lino blocks and punching them through the tabs. With 42 tabs in total, each tab has a word embossed in Braille.
Included in the kit is also a silkscreen-printed booklet with designated spaces for the tabs and a corresponding chart to decode the braille; people can interact with the piece by removing the tabs and writing out the message. At the end of the booklet, there is a section for individuals to journal about their experience with the painting. Mirroring the concept of the Rorschach inkblot test, a psychological test by Hermann Rorschach in which participants have different perceptions of inkblots based on their mental state, this is an opportunity to personally perceive an abstract conception.
With the artist’s statement and biography also included in the booklet and embossed in braille, these Contact Kits are accessible to those who are blind and sighted.
“[Both people who are sighted and blind] are kind of on an equal level; one’s not ones not experiencing it better than the other,” explained Brouwer. “I wanted to make it fun too, so people who are sighted can learn braille and just kind of have a respect for learning that from a blind person's perspective . . . just open their eyes about how they communicate and other ways of communicating.”
Looking forward, Brouwer is presently developing artwork that combines sight, sound and touch to share interviews she has conducted with individuals who are visually impaired. She translates the interviews into braille and then paints in braille on canvases that are paired with an audio soundtrack of the interview.
Through her work, Brower hopes to break down barriers and open our eyes to different methods of communication, providing us an opportunity to venture on an artistic and personal journey as we interact with artwork, braille and ourselves.