Client: Baltimore City Department of Education
Location: Baltimore, MD, United States
Completion date: 1997
Artwork budget: $15,000
Garrett Heights Elementary School
Touch the Stars is a mural of ten cast reliefs of constellation figures and one painting on masonite. It's mounted on a wall measuring 110″ x 284″. It represents the different names associated with the constellation scientists call Ursa Major (the Great Bear) in cultures around the world. It's colorful, decorative, playful with the underlying theme that different people can look at the same thing and see different things in it. The mural is experienced primarily through the sense of touch by the visually impaired children which is 10% of the student population at Garrett Heights Elementary School.
The project was designed as a Percent for Art project for the expansion and renovation of Garrett Heights Elementary School. It was installed on a brick wall to the right as one enters the lobby of the school, which was formerly an exterior wall. A metal door, which leads to the cafeteria kitchen, is incorporated into the design, as are two shallow former window wells which serve as niches for the sculpture. The school wanted the artwork to appeal to both sighted and blind children, so it had to be tactile. A plaque is mounted on the door in both Braille and in standard letters, to identify the constellation figures and their cultures of origin.
The artist and the architect met with the School Improvement Committee, which included the principal, teachers and parents, to get feedback on the initial design. The artist also consulted the literature on producing tactile graphics accessible to visually impaired children, which informed some of the design decisions: 1. Strong value contrasts (i.e. light vs. dark) to help low vision students see the design.
2. For students who rely on touch, the relief figures are grounded as much as possible along the bottom edge of the shape on which the figure is depicted. Frontal or profile views are used instead of three-quarter views because they make more sense to blind children.
3. The stars are reproduced in exactly the same proportions from one image to the next within a horizontal row. That way the spatial relationships between the 7 stars in each constellation are exactly the same, to help children recognize the pattern.
4. Each star is raised, separating it from the surrounding texture, and helping the blind students recognize it as a distinct entity.
5. A rich tactile experience is created for both blind and sighted students by using a variety of textures.
Prior to producing the reliefs, the artist brought a small test sculpture of an animal's head with raised stars to one of the classrooms for the visually impaired, to make sure students were able to interpret her style. They were able to identify the type of animal and find the stars.