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What does art feel like?

July 27th, 2018

Two women touching a stone sculpture

AGO visitors feeling sculpture during multisensory tour (Artwork: Abraham Anghik Ruben, The Hunter and the Seamstress, 2001. Stone, 105.4 × 62.2 cm. Private collection. © Abraham Anghik Ruben)

When it comes to visual art, the sense most people think of is sight. But if you can’t see art, did you know you can hold or smell art?

For people with low or impaired vision, the AGO offers multisensory tours where all visitors are invited to explore, touch, hear and smell their way through the art museum. To find out more, we recently joined one of these fascinating tours.

Led by AGO Education Officer Doris Purchase, our multisensory tour begins in Walker Court. Accompanying Doris is a large wheelie bag full of 3-D models, boards, gloves, bone fragments, stones, bottles and stereo speakers. These tools – many of which were created by OCADU graduate students in the Inclusive Design program – help Doris bring art to senses other than sight.

From her bag, Doris produces a 3-D printed model of Walker Court. “We are now all gathered underneath the staircase,” she says. As she narrates a quick history of the AGO, we pass the printed model of the room among ourselves, using our hands to situate ourselves in the architecture of the space.

A visitor feeling a paint sample.

Image by the AGO.

From Walker Court, we travel west through Level 1 to the bronze sculpture, Flat Torso, by cubist artist Alexander Archipenko. As we gather around, Doris distributes nitrate gloves. We line up, one by one, to touch the sculpture while Doris leads a discussion about the sculpture’s headless form, and its cold, smooth angles.

In front of Claude Monet’s Étretat, L’Aiguille et la Porte d’Aval, Doris passes around a hard plastic miniature of the painting so we can each feel its unusual dimensions. She then produces a touch board, inviting us to run our hands along it. Featuring a progression of textures, it builds up like a painting, leading our fingers from raw canvas, to canvas covered in primer, to canvas with primer and one layer of paint, to the many heavy layers of brushstrokes that defined works by Monet and his Impressionist contemporaries.

A woman sniffing the contents of a jar

Image by the AGO.

Towards the end of the hour and a half tour, we’re in the Thomson Collection of Canadian Art. On Level 2, we gather around the vivid narrative paintings of artist William Kurelek. Beside two works, Reminiscences of Youth and The Moose Story, we listen to audio tracks on Doris’s iPhone that accompany each painting. We hear children playing, crowds cheering, cars driving by – and ever so quietly, a moose grunting. And in front of A Ukrainian Canadian Prairie Tragedy, as we listen to Doris describe the devastation captured on the canvas, she passes around a little bottle. We sniff, and are immediately enveloped by the smell of fire.  

The tour brings art alive in so many ways. It’s a reminder that art is about so much more than what you may see. Art is also about what it makes you think and feel.

If you or someone you know is blind or partially sighted and interested in booking a tour, call 416 979 6648 or visit our website for more information. Visitors with sight are welcome.

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