Background to

The 4 Senses Art Project & Exhibition


Simon Hayhoe


The project was co-ordinated by Orchard House School (Mary West, Ralph Rolls & Simon Hayhoe) / Dorton House School for the Blind (Jo Wooltorton) / The Victoria & Albert Museum (Barry Ginley)



Background to the project


Since Sunderland Art Gallery’s project for the blind in 1913, there have been many art education exhibitions and shows in schools, colleges and museums, which have included students who are blind/visually impaired in viewings of artefacts. However, all of these projects have educated students who are blind/visually impaired separately from their sighted peers. Or they have promoted art purely for people who are blind, usually reproduced from pieces meant primarily for vision (1 sense) to be represented through touch (1 other sense).


This project took a different approach. Rather than producing / commissioning / choosing pieces of art purely for the use of people who are blind/visually impaired, this project gathered two groups of students who are sighted and blind/visually impaired to work together to produce artefacts that can be appreciated by all students, and emphasise the 4 senses they had in common. These artefacts were then displayed in an exhibition at the Royal College of Art.


NB: This project was conducted with the close co-operation of BlindArt (London), The Art Beyond Sight Collaborative (New York) and Art Education for the Blind (New York), three groups with established activities and expertise in this field.

Our Manifesto

         One of the founding debates of modern philosophy, between Locke & Molyneux, asked whether a blind man gaining sight could recognise an object by sight when he had only touched it before. Since this time, the studies of blindness based on this question, including those of Diderot, Berkley, Revesz, Gregory, Sacks and Kennedy, have focused on the following assumptions and questions about blindness:


·   Imagine touch was the only sense to be used to understand objects, what would follow?


·   Imagine objects are only understood by single perceptions at a time what would follow?


·   Imagine pictorial art is understood by direct physical perceptions and not through other forms of communication, could it be understood by those who are blind?


·   Blind people are mainly a perceptual and not a cultural community, and


·   People who are blind have no light perception, and often have never had light perception.


         As a result, over 300 hundred years art and language education for students who are blind, from systems developed by Sanderson, to Demodocus (Anon*), Hauy, Braille, and the first fine art education developed by Klein, has been considered on the assumption that touch was the only form of sensation available. The four senses genre of art challenges these starting points, and instead begins with the following 5 assumptions:


a)     Senses are not discrete, but work together to form a cohesive whole – such as when it is easier to hear when you lip read, as sight cues help fill in sound gaps.


b)     People who have debilitated perceptions, through for instance blindness or deafness, would receive more effective communication from an art work through an enhancement of the other 4 senses as a whole.


c)Art can be communicated through indirect means such as verbal and written language.


d)     Although art favouring 4 senses is useful for people who have perceptual impairments, the 5th sense should be catered for to include the majority of people with full sensual perception, and also to enhance the 5th sense for those with a partial perceptual impairment.


Art favouring 4 senses can provide the fully able bodied viewer with a different understanding of their world, and the subjective nature of perception as a whole.


Aims & Objectives of the Project


The aim of this project was to gather students who are sighted and blind/visually impaired to work on an art project, producing artefacts primarily appreciable by all students’ 4 non-visual senses.


            The objective of this project is to produce and exhibit artefacts that are appreciable by people who are sighted and those who are blind/visually impaired through the emphasis of the 4 non-visual senses.


The Project’s Timetable


The project was conducted with UVI pupils with sight from Orchard House School and GCSE pupils from Dorton House School for the Blind (Royal London Society for the Blind). The project was in 4 distinct phases, as follows:


Phase One: In December, students from Orchard House Preparatory School were given art exercises in representing themselves non-visually. Furthermore, Sharareh Khayami from BlindArt came to the school and gave a presentation during these exercises, describing how they appreciate art.


During Sharehah’s lesson, students had the experiences of the teacher’s and others’ visual impairments. The students were then given the opportunity to explore tactile pictures and other objects. The students were then given the opportunity to write their name in Braille through the BlindArt website (


After this lesson, students were given the task of creating a self portrait emphasising 4 non-visual senses, and de-emphasising sight. Students thought of the smells – such as soaps or perfumes –, touch sensations – such as Vaseline moistness or dry leaves -, tastes – such as sweets or chilli – and sounds – including pieces of music or voices. The students then made a representative collage of these pieces.


The materials for this project were not only traditional arts materials – such as clay, paper or paint from our storage cupboard – but were also items found in the school gardens and the pupils’ own homes. The pupil’s discussed these materials in groups before they collected them.


Phase Two: In January, the pupils from Dorton House School met the pupils from Orchard House Preparatory School at the V&A. During this visit, they were placed into mixed groups, 4 from Orchard House School for every 1 from Dorton House SchoolDorton House has very small teaching groups and art electives. During this visit, the pupils first toured the museum with an experienced guide and then chose pieces they wanted to represent emphasising 4 non-visual senses, from the museum. The three pieces were eventually a gold Buddha from the Asian Gallery, a crystal branch from the Glass Gallery, and a series of flame shaped pieces from the Glass Gallery – this latter gallery appeared most popular with the students who were blind and sighted. NB All of the chosen pieces were behind glass in the museum. No tactile pieces were chosen.


After the groups had chosen their pieces, they met over lunch and discussed how they would like to represent these pieces. During these discussions, the students also chose the materials they were to use for the making process.


Phase Three: At the end of February (2005), both groups of students met again for whole working days twice over the period of a week to make 4 sense representations of pieces from the museum. The Students worked in the groups that they were placed in during the V&A visit, although some students wandered between groups to see how others’ were creating their pieces, and to help other groups during periods where they had less to do.


The pieces were mainly made in the studio’s at Dorton House School, on art benches, using materials for the tactile representations with mud rock, Paper Mache, UPVC glue, chicken wire and wire strands and marshmallows. In addition, students also discussed further sensory representations that could only be brought on the day of the exhibition – such as noises (through music and downloaded sound effects), smells (through flowery perfumes, soot and wood), and tastes (through chilli crisps /chips and powder, mangoes and other fruit, and even more marshmallows, all to be presented in bowls, jugs and plastic cups.


Phase Four: On March 4th (2005), the finished pieces were exhibited at the prize giving exhibition of BlindArt in the Henry Moore Gallery, Royal College of Art. Our section of the exhibition was opened by the renowned artist, himself blind from childhood, Gary Sergeant.


Although the Dorton House pupils were slightly delayed because of snow on that day – they are lucky enough to be based in the Kent hills – Orchard House School managed to arrange the gallery for the arrival of the larger pieces – the Buddha and the flame – and bring their own marshmallow branch.


During these preparations we also taped off sections of an area of the gallery – the tape being on the floor – to show those with low vision the area of the exhibit, and to allow a passage for wheelchair users. We also setup stereos to play our chosen sounds – including Arthur Brown’s Fire, The Doors, Jimmy Hendrix and many stage sound effects – and arranged bowls of food and jugs and cups of juice for those interested enough to want to have the full perceptual experience.




This project, thanks to a great deal of good will from the point of view of the V&A and the art teachers in both schools, was a great success. The pupils from both schools were excited during all four stages, showed immense enthusiasm and continued the project way beyond their school time. It was also a great experience to watch the pupils interact with each other. My favourite comments from the Orchard House pupils were about their disbelief that the Dorton House pupils were actually disabled. Both sides, as a result, learnt a great deal about each other’s school and social cultures as a result.


The only real problems that we faced were from the institutions that we dealt with. None of the Heads or senior teachers from either school attended the making sessions or exhibitions – although some of the latter were sympathetic and gave verbal support. Complaints were also made about transport issues to and from museums and galleries, and so a great deal of persuasion had to be applied. Why, was a mystery. It was felt that those in positions of authority don’t like difference from their normal working patterns, but I can’t think that it was purely this. And it was strange that complaints came from Dorton House’s authorities, whose remit was supposed to be the most progressive.


But it was worth it. Gary Sergeant, Jo (Dorton House) and Mary & Ralph (Orchard House) are fired up and ready for the next project. And now it has been done once, we have gained the support and interest of many other organisations both at home and abroad. Maybe next time, we will find the whole process a little easier, where-ever it is.


© Simon Hayhoe 2005