So, I have Monday mornings free this semester--I'm taking just as many classes, it's just that two of them are on Thursday. I'm pretty sure I'll end up using the time for homework or something, but I have no homework yet, so after breakfast I just wandered around campus for a while.
After a while, I wandered past the Mansion and I spotted Ebony sitting by herself on the porch in front of a small, portable table. I stopped, screwed up my courage, and asked if I could join her.
"Of course!" she said, brightly, looking up in my general direction. "Kit is coming back soon," she added as I walked up the steps. "I don't know which chair is hers."
I told her I'd move if I needed to, and sat down next to her.
Ebony was working at her little table, gluing shapes cut from different grades of sandpaper onto a sheet of plywood, painted white. A collage--tactile art, I decided.
"What are you making?" I asked. I meant her subject matter, but she took the question differently.
"It's a grisaille study," she explained. I knew the word--it's pronounced "grizz-eye," but--
"I know about grisaille from painting..." I offered, uncertainly. It means a painting in just one color, so you can explore the different grades of light and dark in the image. It's done for practice, or to prepare for a more complex painting, like a kind of sketch. But with sandpaper?
"It's the same thing," she told me. "I wish I could use paint, but I haven't figured out how, yet." I looked at the collage taking shape even as she talked. The different grades of paper were indeed different shades, all of purple.
"So it works both visually and by touch?" I asked. "Neat."
"I'm actually not that interested in tactile art," Ebony told me, still gluing, and not looking at her hands. "The sandpaper is a means to an end. How does it look? Can you tell what it is now?"
I'd been so busy imagining how the piece might feel that I hadn't noticed how it looked. When I changed mental gears, the image leaped out at me. It was stylized, cartoonish, but pleasing.
"It's a black woman standing in water at the beach," I said. "In a white bikini bottom." The figure's breasts were done in large, deep purple teardrops with deeper purple circles in the middle.
"Exactly!" exclaimed Ebony, smiling broadly. "Two-dimensional art is really hard for me. It's not usually how I experience the world."
"Did you used to be able to see?" I asked, wondering if I was about to step in some minefield of awkwardness. I have no idea what's likely to offend a blind person. And, as it turned out, I did step in something, though it wasn't remotely what I was expecting. I wish there was a cane I could use to feel my way through conversations with women. At least, she didn't get angry.
"I can see a little bit now," she explained, "mostly fields of color, and I don't know all their names. My vision has never been better than it is now. But I don't identify as blind."
But Kit returned, carrying a bucket full of cut lavender stalks, so Ebony and I were distracted from our conversation. She looked at Ebony's collage and gave her a few specific compliments and suggestions ("I like the breasts," she said, something I'd wanted to say but couldn't). I jumped up so Kit could have my seat and she took it--I've noticed that, no matter how friendly and personable the masters seem, whenever any of us offer them special deference, they accept it. Seated, Kit took a roll of satin ribbon from one pocket and her bolline knife from her belt and started making something with the flower stalks.
"What were you talking about before I came up?" she asked. "Don't let me stop you--unless you're planning a surprise party for me, or something." But for a minute, neither Ebony nor I could think what we had been saying.
"Oh!" said Ebony, finally. "I was starting to tell him about transability."
"Ok," said Kit. Evidently, she already knew what it meant. She had tied a group of lavender stalks tightly together with the ribbon, then bent them all backwards, outwards. Now she was using the ribbon to weave the bent stalks together. As she worked, Ebony explained that although she was blind, she didn't feel blind. When she heard other people talk about blind people and sighted people interacting, she always identified with the sighted people.
"When people refer to me as blind, it's always jarring. I think, that's not me. But it is."
"I remember something like that, the year before I got married," Kit put in."I'd have to say I was single, like on my taxes and so forth, because I was, but it felt so wrong."
"Exactly. People keep telling me it's impossible for someone born blind to feel like this, to still feel like there's something missing. Like I should just feel pride in my blind identity and do tactile art and everything. But I don't have a blind identity. That's the problem. So I made up this word. Transabled. Because how people perceive me based on my body is not who I am."
"And you're learning to paint," Kit added, with some pride. I'm guessing she is one of Ebony's teachers.
"Yes. I figure, as long as I'm doing one impossible thing, why not another? I want to be an art teacher--a visual art teacher."
"I think I'm lost," I said.
"That's ok," said Ebony. "I confuse myself sometimes, so you can be confused, too. Confused is ok. I'm under no obligation to resolve anyone else's confusion about me."
Kit beamed at her and then looked back to her own work. She had finished weaving the lavender stalks together so they now completely enclosed the flowers. She'd made a tight, club-shaped wand. She tied off the ribbon and cut it free from the roll with her bolline.
"There," she said with satisfaction. "One down, twelve more to go."
"Oo, can I see?" exclaimed Ebony, holding out her hand. Kit gave her the wand and she explored it by touch and smell. "What color is the ribbon?" she asked.
"Lavender, actually," Kit explained.
"Are lavender flowers lavender color?" Ebony wanted to know.
"Not really. Not always, anyway. They are more of a blue. But...lavender flowers smell the way lavender color looks."
Ebony seemed to get a complete kick out of that.
"Really?" she said, excitedly. "Do other colors have scents?"
"I wouldn't say colors have scents," said Kit, "but scents have colors. For me, anyway. If I can't see something, or if I can't feel it in my body, I guess I make up what it looks like or feels like. I could dance the scent of lavender, if I wanted to."
"That's what I do!"exclaimed Ebony. "When I see colors, they turn into textures, like my eyeballs are finger tips! The way you make scents have color, I make colors have texture."
"Is that like how you can feel colors with your fingers?" asked Kit.
"Wait, what?" I asked. It's not that I didn't believe she could do it--I've learned to believe a lot of things around here--but I didn't know what they meant and I really felt like I'd been left behind by the conversation, like they both understood some kind of trans-sensory secret and I hadn't gotten the message. Ebony started to explain something she called "dermo-optical perception," an ability to identify contrast between colors by touch alone. But she said she wasn't good at demonstrating it because having an audience made her nervous, and that distracted her and made it harder to do..
"I always feel like everyone expects me to be some super-blind person or something. I really think most sighted people could do it, if they tried."
"Well, let me try," I offered.
So, Ebony got her laptop out of her bag, plus a pair of headphones. I guess her computer tells her what the screen looks like, or something? She kept the screen folded up so I couldn't see it, then asked me to shut my eyes. I did, and Kit helped me get my hand on the screen without accidentally grabbing something embarrassing.
"Just run your fingers across the surface and see if you can feel the texture change, like get smoother or rougher." I tried, and felt no texture at all, except the smooth but slightly resistive screen.
"It might not be texture for you," suggested Kit. "Your mind might offer you a different metaphor."
So I tried again, and....
I swear, I felt a temperature difference. Not in my fingers, as if the screen were hot and cold, but in the center of my forearm, wrist, and palm. It was like when I chose my athame last year--it had felt warm in the same way.
I told Kit whenever I felt the temperature change, and she confirmed that the color had changed every time.
[Next Post: Monday, August 18th: New Classes}