Clarke Reynolds tells us about his mission to bring the language of touch to the masses and all the way to Mars
They’re called the visual arts for a reason. Paintings and drawings have always showcased the sense of sight. Right back to prehistoric cave art, marks have been made to appeal to your eyes. And thanks to overprotective galleries, even sculptures that are asking to be touched are behind rope barriers and accompanied by strict signs restricting you from reaching out.
That’s not Morph’s style. His Epic Art Adventure is an outdoor experience where we can look and feel (but not climb over or risk damaging) these uniquely painted sculptures. There’s one Morph, though, that celebrates touch even more than his 55 fellow works of art. Clarke Reynolds’ The Power of Morphing Communication is also stunning to look at. He wears a bright yellow suit, dark glasses and holds a white cane. But this Morph’s message is a tactile one. His suit, like the one the artist wears, is covered in braille – the language of raised dots that can be read by touch. Clarke has handily included the alphabet in braille on the back of his suit, so Tower Bridge, where this Morph is located, could be where many people learn to read their first braille letters and words.
It’s all part of Clarke’s plans as he tries to convert the world to this uniquely accessible language through what he describes as his greatest work of art yet. Born with limited sight in his right eye, he was forced to leave school early due to a kidney problem. It didn’t stop him from studying art and gaining a degree. However, when he started losing sight in his other eye, he had to give up his dental model-making job. With his lifelong passion for art still strong, even as his vision faded, he started to use textiles to express himself, and then discovered braille could be his artistic language. Dots had always featured in his work for this fan of pointillism, a painting technique in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image. But Braille allows him to use
“the dots as a vessel to bring that word to life”
as he pushes what’s possible in the medium and hopes to change people’s perception of art.
We spoke to him about his life and his Morph, which stands out from its London backdrop with the sort of high contrast used to make signs and websites accessible to visually impaired people.
How did you get involved with the Morph project?
It was quite strange how I got involved because it was to do with an outside party, Toys Like Me. They make hearing aids for teddy bears. I knew the co-founder, whose son is visually impaired, and we met up on regular mentor chats. And she obviously found out about the project and said do you want to put a design in? I’ll do all the paperwork, and I put the design in, how I wanted my Morph, the braille suit, white cane and glasses, and it happened from there.
What was the process of creating your Morph sculpture?
Obviously, it was a tough battle because of the pushback regarding the add-ons because these sculptures are usually just painted. So, I fought my case for that because my background is model making, so I know how to do sculptures and stuff, and I knew how it would be done, and it was also about asking favours. You know, you want it as perfect as you want it to be, to be professional enough, so I went to a professional company, they do spray painting two minutes from my studio and told them about the project, and they loved it and did it for free. So, it was all about reaching out and being organised. And I loved it. It took me over 100 hours to do the body of work, and
“it was the best thing I’ve ever done in my career so far.”
Can you tell us more about your Morph design? What were the inspirations behind it?
The inspiration was me; I know that sounds narcissistic, but I wear this braille suit almost like the braille Riddler, and I go to schools and talk about sight loss and braille and break down the stigma attached to sight loss. So to be seen as a blind person, you have to physically be seen, so I wanted him to be me basically, and to represent me and have that braille suit, you can touch and learn braille and have inspirational words. But most importantly, that white cane, the idea behind that white cane is so when visually impaired children come along and interact with him, and they touch that white cane.
“They go, ‘Omg, Morph is just like me’
I want that moment to show representation. There isn’t enough representation of visually impaired people in society to be role models. So, Morph is a role model for visually impaired children growing up.
What does braille mean?
Braille has been around since the 1830s, invented by Louie Braille, a 15-year-old. And it’s been a language that visually impaired people have been using officially as a language since the early 1900s. But for me, because we live in a world of technology, people are forgetting to use braille, and that’s quite sad, so
“I’m trying to bring braille into the 21st century.”
So braille shouldn’t be used just as a typeface. It doesn’t have to be small dots. It can be big, it can be proud, it can use colour, and that’s what I do with my braille. So, I’m the only braille typographer in the country.
What is your experience with accessibility as a visually impaired person?
Accessibility’s a weird one because being a creative, you know, when I go into museums and galleries, I find that to be the worst for accessibility and to be quite patronising in terms of accessibility. You know, the audio description, being told, ‘left ankle there’s a sun and right ankle there’s grass’, you know, for me, that means nothing. There’s no emotional content to that. So we live in a creative industry, so we should be creative about inclusivity. Inclusivity doesn’t have to be boring, hence my Morph. I’ve had so many people contact me on my Instagram and say, ‘Wow, this is amazing’. My daughter has been learning braille. And braille can be taught for fun. If it’s learnt by everyone, then we can have it everywhere. We can have braille menus and braille on toilets, it should be the norm, and that’s what I’m trying to do.
Do you think being a blind artist gives you a unique perspective for your art?
It does, and being blind has made me a better artist because you know I had sight as an artist, and now I haven’t. So, my art is for a visual audience, but the idea is bridging the gap between the visual and the tactile, so if people see my work, they can physically touch it as well. The inclusivity in that is magical, from children up to adults and beyond. The idea of touching art is great.
How are you shifting attitudes toward blind artists?
Amazingly, I always say I want to be famous, I want to make a difference, I want to be seen. Having a platform over the last six months with Quantus Gallery and being in the media has given me that platform to do so much. But imagine if I was famous, I could do even more. We live in a society where social media, the bloggers, the YouTubers, you know they make a difference, and I want to make a difference. And doing projects like the Morph gets me out there and shows that a blind person can compete in the creative industry.
“It’s not a hobby. This is my career, my life.”
What inspired you to become an artist?
Life itself inspired me, growing up with very limited…in poverty, growing up in a council flat, and having nothing but a sketchbook, so art for me… I don’t know where it’s come from. It literally has saved my life through all the ups and downs. The bad kidneys, the sight loss, and being homeless, but one thing has remained a constant, and that is art, and I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for finding it and holding it deeply, and never giving up on the dream and the passion of being that professional artist as a 6-year-old. So yeah, I’ve got another 40 years of this, so who knows what I’ll produce.
How did you discover textiles and braille after you had to give up model making?
Textiles are an interesting way of engaging. If you can’t draw, how are you supposed to touch, so textiles are a way of understanding the physicality of touch and the nature of sound. So when we speak, and the sound of the sea, or something like that, a touch of fabric represents that as well. And it wasn’t until I learnt braille, and that was by accident, someone gave me a typewriter, and the light bulb moment went off in my head. I’ve always used dots in my artwork, and now those dots mean something, so it’s meant to be.
“I was meant to go blind, learn braille, and then bring braille to the masses.”
And every piece tells a story. So a painting tells a thousand words, and mine literally does.
Do you think people who aren’t blind would benefit from learning braille?
Absolutely, you know the idea is, it’s almost like a metaphor for sight loss. We start talking about braille when it’s big and bold instead of when it’s hidden and tucked away, which a braille dot is. And the misconception of blind, what is blindness? If it was everywhere, you’ll see it everywhere, and it will become the norm, just like letters, so my aim is when we colonise Mars, instead of taking letters, we should take braille. Let’s reinvent the language of braille.
Art is usually thought of as a visual medium. How important do you think touch is for people’s experience? Should we be allowed to touch more works of art?
We should be, but unfortunately, the main elitism in art, is the idea of a Henry Moore sculpture; if it was in the open, it’s for everyone, but if a private collector or private gallery bought it then you have barriers around it, and you can’t touch it. It’s quite sad, really, those things are meant to be touched.
“With my exhibitions, there are big signs saying, ‘You must touch the artwork”
– it’s part of the story, I’m unique in that area, but you don’t have to touch the artwork to experience it. The idea of audio description can be a powerful tool as well, but doing it correctly with passion and emotion. And going forward, for future trails, I’d love to work on audio descriptions being a big part of those trails and having fun. Those artists creating those trails are part of the description, they’re telling the story, so when people click a QR code, if they can’t physically touch it, they can touch it through the artist’s voice.
Are there any hidden details in your Morph we should feel around for?
The words, obviously there are words at the front and the letters are jumbled up, but they do spell out the words, and on the back is the whole alphabet. The big one is the VIP tie, a very important person, as well as a visually impaired person. The interaction, I’m hoping for the big event on the 15th when VICTA are bringing loads of visually impaired people who live outside of London to come and see me and take Morphies, there will be more conversations had, and that’s what I really enjoy.
How has your work been received by people – both blind and not blind? Any comments or reactions that have stayed with you?
What’s great is when I had my first exhibition at the Aspex gallery, and all my peers came along, and they said my god, Clarke I didn’t know you had it in you. And going beyond what they see as a hobby is now I’m a professional artist; people know me in Portsmouth for what I do, I’m a mini-celebrity, and I’m putting Portsmouth on the map for inclusion and accessibility but in a fun way. And for me, it can only get better, when I’m in London next week and people randomly walking by, and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I created this sculpture,’ and we’ll have that discussion because how has a blind person created this? And that’s the beauty of what I do. Straight away, a blind artist evokes a conversation because why and how? Then you break down the stigma attached to sight loss. It’s great what I do.
Any tips for writing good alt text for images? What’s the best approach for describing images for people who can’t see them?
I don’t do myself because when I usually describe my artwork, I describe it with a story, so it’s almost describing the artwork within the piece. So, if you are going to do alt text, tell a story, you’ve done an image, and you don’t have to say, ‘I’m standing, I’ve got grey hair, I’ve got blue eyes’, go beyond that and tell a story. Grip me with power within a few words.
“Play around with it. You’re a creative person, so be creative.”
What are your inspirations for your art?
My inspirations for my art are conversations, meeting new people, sitting on the bus overhearing people talk. I work in words and the idea of using the braille dot to become a vessel to hold that language.
The pieces called Fab To Touch are inspired by Andy Warhol. Prints like his soup cans, just by changing colours, you perceive them differently, but they’re the same image…but what if you could read this image? So my Fab To Touch are the visual image of the iconic Fab ice lolly… and embedding in those Fab To Touch pieces are the good, the bad, and the ugly of sight loss. So, I tell my story but within my art pieces.
What do you think the future of art will be? What would you like it to be?
The future of art for me would be to exhibit at the Tate Modern. Why can’t I do that, Bob and Roberta Smith just had an exhibition, and he’s a typographer. I’m a typographer; I just use dots, and for me, I’d like to do a whole wall and over a hundred thousand dots and people looking at it and touching it and decoding it and having conversations with strangers; that’s how I would love to see my art.
“All over the world, in New York, Paris, Australia, Canada, and India, I want to be as big as Damien Hirst, if not bigger.”
What are you working on next?
I am working on an exhibition with Quantus Gallery and turning the gallery into an arcade. An 80s arcade so that the braille will be imagery evoking and have the pixelisation of the Pac-Man, Space Invaders but all in braille. And the idea is that the gallery isn’t a gallery; it’s an arcade to come along and play computer games, touch the artwork, and experience it. It’s an experience.
Do you know what was great? I’ve done loads of stuff with the schools, and what was nice is an Instagram photo from a couple of days ago…the queen of dots, the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama, she has a big exhibition in Manchester. She’s 95 now. The school had made a little peg of her, and right next to her, they made a peg character of me. It’s so nice to see that, you think of dot art, you think of her, and then you think of me. I think that’s beautiful.
Do you have any advice for a young disabled, or visually impaired person aspiring to become an artist?
Of course, specifically, we’re not disabled. We are what we are, so I am blind, and disability is a negative word. Push through and never give up on your dream. Never give up the stigma attached to the creative industry in the disability realm. The word abled and ability, and with people like myself, hopefully, we’ll break down those barriers so future generations of visually impaired children growing up do not have to face what we have to, the stigma attached. Watch this space.
Clarke Reynolds’s The Power of Morphing Communication, sponsored by Evenbreak is at More London, by Tower Bridge until August 20th.
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