In keeping with the Denver Art Museum's goals of being more intellectually and physically accessible to a wider range of visitors, we worked with local designer Matt Gesualdi to develop a multisensory installed experience in Rembrandt: Painter as Printmaker to help explain Rembrandt’s printmaking processes.
Matt is a member of the learning and engagement department’s Access Advocacy Group, and has long been a champion for people who are blind or have visual impairments. Below is a Q&A we had about what went into creating this tactile experience for visitors.
...people absorb information and remember it much better if they touch something rather than just hear about it. Touching gives you the opportunity to make pictures in your head.
Q: How long have you been doing this type of work?
A: I’ve been doing research and development with tactile models for 20 years. My first attempt at building a tactile architectural model was full of assumptions about what blind people were capable of. It took four years of testing with the Colorado Center for the Blind and three rebuilds to get that model to be good enough to show. After that, I was hooked on tactile models and exhibits.
Q: What was your approach to this project?
A: Showing the three most-used intaglio (incised) printmaking types was the starting point but creating a holistic experience about printmaking was my goal. The feel of cold copper, the smell of ink and ground, the texture of the paper after pressing and so many more features of the printmaking process needed to be shown in some way.
For the piece with over-sized intaglio grooves, I first had to use a microscope to see what the grooves really looked like, then figured out how big they needed to be to become meaningful through touch. This was a very tactile experience for me as well. I always use a common object as a scale reference, so here I made the edge of an enlarged “penny” stick out of the display to show in comparison how small the grooves are. At the magnification that would make an intaglio groove one-half inch wide, a penny is three and a half inches thick.
The second tactile piece didn’t need scale to show actual materials and a bit of the process. I etched extra wide grooves in a real copper plate, then pressed a wet piece of printmaking paper into it. This shows how artists have to make a reversed image on the plate to get the intended image on paper.
We have scents of copper, waxy ground, old paper, and printer’s ink to give another dimension to the printmaking process.
Q: What were you most excited about?
A: Working with Dawn Spencer Hurwitz, an olfactory artist in Boulder, was an exciting adventure. Our goal was to consider the materials used in printmaking and create one smell that encompassed all of them. We have scents of copper, waxy ground, old paper, and printer’s ink to give another dimension to the printmaking process.
Q: What have been some challenges with the process?
A: The main board, which I named 3Scratches, was difficult because it was all hand-made; it was challenging to make something that’s very small more than 35 times bigger. I had to make tools to make the grooves and drag them across the dense foam many times to get the effect I wanted. Every time I thought I was crazy for doing it that way, I thought about how Rembrandt would have approved of not using machines. It may not be true, but it kept me going.
Q: Did you have experiences with printmaking before this project?
A: My mom is an artist and when I was a teen we both took a printmaking class from a famous printmaker in Jacksonville. I have great memories of having to draw in reverse of my sketch, watching the plate sizzle in the acid bath, and especially the smell of the ground and ink.
Q: What do you hope visitors will get from this component in the exhibition?
A: From research and experience I know that people absorb information and remember it much better if they touch something than just hear about it. Touching gives you the opportunity to make pictures in your head. I’d like people to come away with a real feeling of experience—seeing the master’s art, his techniques, and an up-close view of what his copper plates contained. I love that the DAM wants big exhibitions like Rembrandt to have tactile elements. It’s a great direction they are taking to make sure exhibitions are accessible to as many people as possible.