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Go Ahead, This Art Is Touchable-Blind Sculptor Lets Others Feel His Work

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following article is re-printed from the Arizona Republic, Jan. 31, 2001.

Jean Patri gently grasped the base of the bronze sculpture of a female figure and slowly ran one hand and then the other over the smooth body until she reached its fingertips.

"This is so realistic; it just flows," Patri, 77, said, envisioning what she once could have seen before glaucoma destroyed her eyesight

Most museums discourage such manhandling, but that's not the case with the Heard Museum's "Inner Visions" exhibit, which was created by a sculptor who is blind himself.

With signs inviting visitors to "Please touch," about 40 members of the Arizona Center for the Blind & Visually Impaired on Tuesday felt their way through 33 sculptures created by artist Michael Naranjo.

"It's quite thrilling," said Charlotte Davis, 66, of Glendale, who has limited vision but felt the sculptures for their detail

"I'd like for you to touch my work," Naranjo told the group before the tour began. "These pieces are in bronze, so they can't be hurt, and if they are damaged, they can be repaired."

Even visitors with good vision were encouraged to touch the sculptures.

"We're meant to touch," said Naranjo, who lives in Santa Fe. "People often say this is what they've always wanted to do because it adds to their appreciation."

In Naranjo's case, touching art is the only way to experience it. In 1968, while stationed in Vietnam, a grenade exploded near his face, destroying his eyes and most of his right hand.

While recovering in a hospital in Japan, Naranjo turned a piece of clay into a worm, rekindling childhood dreams of being a sculptor

In 1999, he was honored as the Disabled American Veterans' Disabled Veteran of the Year.

But the fame wasn't always there. He remembers the frustration of being told not to touch the sculptures while visiting museums in Washington, D.C., a painful irony for a man who lost his vision fighting for the country.

He pledged not to restrict others who wanted to experience his art, although he often has to persuade museums to permit a hands-on approach to his exhibits

Naranjo's standing as an artist has allowed him special access in some cases, such as when he was allowed to climb a scaffolding to touch Michelangelo's David.

"It was an incredible honor," Naranjo said.

Although Naranjo's exhibit closes Sunday, he will be an artist-in-residence with the Heard for the next few weeks. He will work with five high school students to create a 3 BD-foot human form that will be cast in bronze and displayed at the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix. Each of the students is blind and will work on one part of the sculpture.

Naranjo, who began working with the students this week, created a small clay model that the students felt and mimicked in pose

"It's difficult to make anything," Naranjo said. "It'll be especially challenging with five different people doing different parts, especially if they've never done any art at all."

But at least one of those students said being blind works to her advantage. "Feeling can be better with something like this because of all the details," said Sydney Freedman, an eighth-grader at Sunrise Middle School .

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