Film review: Viewpoint Blurred but Vivid in “Straight Off the Canvas”

Drawing of Person with Hands Out Stretched and Encircled in Red

Editor’s note:  Although this film is not available for public viewing at this time, this review of the film and the concurrent post by Empish Thomas provide excellent information about the world of art for people with vision loss and the importance of audio description (voicing of titles and nonverbal actions for nonvisual viewers) to enable viewers who are blind and visually impaired to enjoy and understand the action on the film.

Exploring the Creative Life of Blind or Visually Impaired Art Makers  

Does it matter if you need to ask someone else to select the purple your mom loves before you create a gift for her? Is it important whether your brush strays onto the table outside the velum? According to Anthony Saldana’s latest film, Straight off the Canvas, the answer is a resounding no. This documentary of just over one hour explores the creative life of art makers who are blind or visually impaired. For some of the film’s subjects, art appears as an avenue to express their identity, including their disability; for others, art provides the mode to express who they are, free from the blindness with which the sighted world automatically labels them. 

Saldana began filming during the lead-up to the 2016 art exhibit at New York’s Lavelle School for the Blind, and he didn’t know what was hitting him. But the gusto of a five-year-old boy describing his animal sculpture’s triangles, materials, and overall creation stole the show. While such moments shine through, the film is more a review of how nonvisual learners develop artistic abilities than about the art itself. However, since Lavelle School focuses on students with multiple disabilities, it’s difficult to pinpoint where their blindness influences their pursuit of creativity versus how their intellectual, cognitive, and physical differences affect their output. 

Transitions from topic to topic, person to person, and scene to scene feel choppy throughout the film. But in a quirky way, this lends itself to creating a real-life, candid glimpse into the day-to-day activities of artists and art students alike. 

Audio Description 

The film’s audio description is disappointing. To begin with, all action stops while the descriptions are read instead of being inserted as the segments are discussed. Phrases like “In this next scene we see” or “title” clutter the description and make it longer than necessary.  Some significant actions go undescribed such as a small kid screaming, “I’m sorry!” and the answer, “Let’s take five minutes out.”  Additionally, a series of talking heads near the film’s end remains entirely unidentified, leaving us to guess who’s who. 

Winning the IndieFest Award of Merit 

Despite all this, I acknowledge why this film received an IndieFest Award of Merit in  February 2021 (as well as several other awards). Through interviews, footage, and artistic displays, Saldana unflinchingly explores several essential questions:  What does art do? How is it created? Is the art for the artist or the viewer? And what do people think of it? Of equal impact comes the overall theme: What does the pursuit of art give back to a nonvisual artist exploring the visual world? 

The movie mentions plaster, clay, and other sculpture, but only tangentially, compared to canvas work. This choice of exploration gives me pause; is this art approach playing off sighted people’s feeling of strength, combined with a hint of voyeurism? Yet one could argue, perhaps, that for blind and low-vision artists, the very fact that what appears on the canvas to them is different than what most of their viewers observe is a kind of freedom from convention, from notions of perspective and color, from historical visual memory, or even from prowess. This theme comes through most strongly with a segment on the delights of art museum discovery and access by blind students, a long-awaited endeavor only recently undertaken by most art institutions.

With minimal information about the featured school, it isn’t easy to judge how the identities of the people in charge of Lavelle influence the film’s gaze. While the student body appears highly diverse, it’s significant to note that all professional artists interviewed were young to middle-aged white women. But this film emphasizes a crucial truth: there is no “You’re doing that wrong” in the art world; on the contrary, using various senses gives a unique window into the world. “We’re in a safe spot, and you can do anything you want,” explains one therapist. “This involves making decisions, considering good choices, and using feelings, as well as seeing the effects of one’s actions.” Speaking in particular of students with multiple disabilities, teachers and therapists at Lavelle comment on the freedom of choice and the agency inherent in the art room. 

In my third-grade low-vision class, our Friday morning art hours were my weekly highlight, from finger painting with sweet pudding to brushing bitter-scented watercolors onto vellum. One week that spring, we planted bean plants. “I think it would be cool to make seed pictures,” I remember telling our teacher. The following Friday, our desks came alive with fragrant seeds of many shapes and colors. And while my artwork was never placed in a contest, I still remember the flower design I created. More critical for later life, I experienced the triumph that an idea I casually mentioned inspired the focus of our entire class.  

Summary 

Straight off the Canvas isn’t a film about blind people creating great art. Rather, it documents the tension in art appreciation between creative nonvisual participants and the visual audience. Ultimately, this is the story of people gaining agency in a world not built for them. As one of the main interviewees, former art teacher Elizabeth Castellano says, “My visual impairment was my artistic style.” Regarding her blindness, she leaves it to others to figure that influence out independently. 

Plans for the Film 

The latest film festival showing will be the International Film and Art Festival in Buenos Aires, Argentina. October 27-31. Saldana’s further plans include distributing the film to educational institutions, universities, schools, museums, and non-profits through screening licenses and DVDs. 

Additional Information  

Interested in artists with low or no vision? Check out artist Lynda Lambert’s story about the importance of art to her. By the way, Lynda has won several awards for her work at the annual APH Insights exhibition, including this year! Stay tuned for another blog post about that award and event.

Also, check out the course The Process of Teaching Art, available on MSU OIB-TAC.


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