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Ruth Bieber and the Arts

Editor's Note: Ruth Bieber is a member of the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians' Kelowna, British Columbia, Chapter. She is the recipient of the 2004 YWCA/Global TV Woman of Vision Award and the 2006 Euclid Herie Leadership Award. This article is based on two articles by Ruth Bieber, "Gallery Tour for the Blind; Kelowna Art Gallery, April 2, 2011" and "The Gods, They Do Conspire", both of which can be found at www.playwithperspective.com.

Prior to obtaining her Master's degree in Education from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Ruth Bieber's professional focus was as a therapist, counselling clients with disabilities. This work challenged her to seek more effective modes of therapy and, to that end, she shifted from traditional verbal approaches to the power offered by the arts. Thus began her 20-year journey to the present day.

In the early 1990s, Ruth founded InsideOut Theatre in Calgary, Alberta, where she served as Artistic Director for 17 years. At this groundbreaking, integrated theatre company, people with varying degrees of ability experienced the therapeutic power of performance. During her stint at the Theatre, Ms. Bieber also spoke and performed at conferences and festivals, both nationally and internationally.

In 2008, when her mother passed away, her children left home, and she ceased working at InsideOut Theatre, Ruth moved to New York, where she wrote plays and worked on a couple of book projects for about two years. Her first publication, "Disability Theatre from the InsideOut", is soon to be published in the United Kingdom.

Another interest of Ruth's was Shamanism. She had attended a two-year Shaman training program during her time at InsideOut, and soon learned that New York was home to a strong network of Shaman. Ironically enough, the circle to which she belonged had a sister group in Sorrento, British Columbia--not too distant from Kelowna, where she would eventually make her home.

Ruth was also passionate about the visual arts. While in New York, she learned about Art Beyond Sight, a non-profit organization that encourages galleries to run tours for people who are blind and partially sighted. Ms. Bieber attended tours at the Guggenheim, Museum of Modern Art and the Intrepid, and even participated in various training sessions for gallery staff--everything from instruction in the proper sighted-guide technique and myths about blindness to tips for describing art to people with limited vision. Although she had been legally blind since the age of seven, Ruth knew she wanted to paint, and credits the HeArt Fit project in Kelowna, British Columbia for giving her the opportunity to do so. To view her art, visit www.playwithperspective.com.

Ms. Bieber recently relocated to Kelowna, B C, where the idea of a gallery tour for people with vision impairments was embraced by both the Kelowna Art Gallery and the blind community, due in part to her association with the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC). After several months of promoting the tour, there was a training session for gallery staff, led by Joyce Mainland, an AEBC Kelowna Chapter member, and supported by a handful of other blind people, including Ruth.

The gallery tour, held on April 2, 2011, was one of Western Canada's first for people who are blind and partially sighted.

Says Ruth, "We entered the gallery. I was guided by my new friend, Winnie; new friend for me, new experience for the Okanagan. We were greeted by gallery staff: Nataley Nagy, Executive Director; Renee Burgess, Head of Public Programming; and Lynden Beesley, Gallery Tour Guide. Local harpist Sarah Mainland gently stroked the strings of her harp and the melodic sounds filled the room. There were also sounds of others, generally softly conversing; the room was electric with anticipation.

"After several months of preparation, the day had arrived, and I suddenly felt my heart swell with appreciation for the willingness of this group to try on a new hat--a new cultural experience."

After some preliminaries, the group of about 20 people split into two smaller groups, each starting in a different part of the main gallery, where Toronto artist John Kissick exhibited his most recent works. The tour guides chose select pieces and described their size, shape, colours, date of completion etc. One of the tour guides, an artist herself, demonstrated some of John's techniques on several canvases for blind participants to feel. Then there was wine, cheese and much discussion in the gallery foyer.

Overall, the gallery tour was informative and inspirational. Suggestions for future events included a lecture on political influences of the modern art movement of the last century, coupled with a few highlights of some of the most salient and influential artists. In August 2011, the gallery hosted a second tour, and there is much interest in other projects such as a sculpture tour in Westbank and an Art Walk tour in Lake Country.

As others learn from the valuable leadership of Ruth Bieber, and other people who are blind and partially sighted seek opportunities for this kind of cultural experience, the Canadian art scene can only get more interesting and inclusive.