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Carving a Niche: Blind Sculptor Steve Handschu Gives Hands-On Lessons in Empowerment

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the ChicagoTribune Magazine, June 24, 2001.

Mack Handschu never knew it, but a snap decision he made one day in the mid-1950's set the course for his young son's whole life. Handschu and his son Steve were spending the day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, enjoying an exhibit of ancient Egyptian sculptures. That would have been unremarkable except that Steve, then about seven years old, was nearly blind. He had been born with only five percent of standard vision, but he could discern the general outlines of sculptures he was allowed to get close to. To give him a better appreciation of the pieces, he and his father went to the museum gift shop to find a book on the exhibit. Looking at the oversized photos, Steve recalls he could make out the sculptures a little better, and one in particular moved him in a way nothing ever had.

"It was a phenomenally beautiful torso, this magnificent black granite flat relief of a woman's torso draped, and it looks as if the drape is going to be blown away by a breeze," he says. "Somebody who had been dead for 4,000 years had left something behind" that affected him deeply. "That was power."

The boy asked his father, "How did somebody do this? How did they make something so magnificently beautiful, that looks so soft, out of hard granite? I would love to be able to do that."

To which his father replied, "If that's what you want to do, let's find out how you can do it."

Mack Handschu, an engineer and business consultant, died a few years later in 1957, but that one bit of encouragement had left an indelible impression on his son. Steve Handschu, now fifty-three and a working sculptor in Lake View, says his father would have been perfectly justified-and in line with the standard attitude toward blindness-if in answer to his little son's questions, he'd said simply, "Most people who can see can't even do that. There's no way you can."

Instead, when they returned to their Peekskill, New York, home from the museum, Mack Handschu gave his son a two-by-four and a hunting knife. Steve, who could hardly see either the wood or the knife, started carving. "I carved my fingers more than the two-by-four," he recalls. "My mother asked if they should stop me, but my father said, 'I don't think so. I better teach him how to hold a knife, but we can't stop him from trying this. He wants to do it."

Steve Handschu now sculpts images from natural wood using power tools that would intimidate many sighted people, and he has become an eloquent advocate for other blind people's abilities. He is also an artistic mentor, helping residents of a Lake View homeless shelter express their own struggles- against drugs, poverty, powerlessness- in sculpture.

According to the National Federation of the Blind (U.S.), about three-quarters of blind adults don't work. Handschu, a member of the Federation, believes the key reason is that from earliest childhood most blind people are "custodialized. They're told to "go sit over there and we'll do it for you. You can't do this, you poor blind kid."

The message sinks in deep, says Stephen Benson, president of the Federation's Illinois chapter. "If you don't have chances to succeed on your own as a child, you learn not to try," he says. "You don't understand that there's not only a possibility of success, but a desirability and a necessity, that you ought to go out and do it."

There are compelling reasons that keep some blind people from working, other medical conditions and lack of transportation among them. But Handschu, Benson, and other blind Chicagoans who have careers say that what keeps them on the playing fields of professional life is the kind of simple empowerment that Mack and Ann Handschu gave their son.

What they did was really nothing more than good parenting-letting their son find what he liked and then cheering him on-but the current of conventional wisdom flowed hard against them. "They were always having to fight people who expected less of me than they would from a [sighted] child," Handschu recalls. "They hated to hear people who were amazed that I could do some simple thing like tying my shoes or feeding myself."

The Handschus' confidence in their son even set them against the medical establishment. They sought "sightsaver" aids and classes designed to maximize his use of the little sight he had at a time when those things, now known as low-vision techniques, "were considered quackery," he says. One result is that Handschu can read some printed materials using a pair of glasses fitted with what he calls a "telescope" in front of his one functioning eye.

The more pervasive social benefit of having such supportive parents is that Handschu became someone who habitually backs up others. Living in New York in the 1960's, he threw himself into the civil rights movement, registering voters in Harlem and in Alabama. When he lived in Michigan from the 1970's to the early 1990's, he was an appointed state commissioner for the blind and an outspoken advocate for a Braille literacy law and other blind-rights issues. He moved to Chicago in 1997 when he married Linda Davis, who lives here, and last year launched a sculpture project to give homeless men a creative outlet for their troubles.

"What's in Steve is compassion," says Davis, who is Handschu's second wife. "He's very committed, probably overboard committed, to helping people get what they ought to have."

Through it all there has been his own art. He has stuck with his initial medium, wood, rather than the stone that first lured him to sculpture, because it's softer. It also lends itself to the fluid, organic, and often frankly sexual forms he creates, such as the subtly vaginal opening in a callused segment of a white oak trunk. Into the oak he's carving various figures, and from another piece of wood he's making a female form, a musician playing a horn who will lean through the opening. It's a layered image that relates artistic creation to the act of giving birth, a theme Handschu works with often in his sculpture. Hands, too, figure into his art, not a surprise given that, as a sculptor and a blind person, Handschu is especially tactile.

Pat Daley, a Gallery 37 program coordinator, who also runs the Visual Arts Project, a private organization, says Handschu's sculpture has an "organic And sort of ethnic feel to it, something that reminds you of indigenous sculpture because of the textures he gets from his material."

Scattered around his spacious studio on the fourth floor of a former industrial building in Lake View are a few dozen partial tree trunks waiting to be carved. On a table lie at least three dozen chisels, which he keeps razor sharp, and nearby are table saws and other large power tools. "I've been using industrial power tools since the 1960's, and I still have ten fingers," Handschu says whenever someone expresses surprise that he operates dangerous equipment.

Handschu has mounted shows in Michigan, including a one-man exhibition at the Kalamazoo Art Institute, and this summer will have a piece-a coat rack in the form of a tree-in a furniture-as-art show at the Cultural Center.

The men who come in off the streets at the Lakeview Shelter, in the basement of a church on Addison Street, most likely don't arrive in search of an artistic experience. But last summer and again this year Handschu has spent a few days a week there working with the men on their contributions to the Homeless Wall. It's a series of square-foot concrete frames, each a sculptural statement by one of the men at the shelter. The men first make a wire form of the image they have in mind, then spread concrete over the form. Each one flashes a life story in one three-dimensional image.

One panel has two hands in it; in one hand is a crack pipe, in the other the initials of Narcotics Anonymous. Another shows a woman watching TV. "He was thinking of his wife or girlfriend," Handschu says. "He talked to me about how much he wanted a home and a family." There's sculpture of a man fishing around in a dumpster, with a dog standing nearby to protect him; another of an old shoe with laces hanging out."