Sally Barker thought that her retirement would bring time to travel, take up piano and learn Spanish. As a self described “nice, quiet CPA,” Barker wasn’t prepared for a retirement filled with creativity.
Soon after her retirement began, however, Barker was making art — stitching various shades and textures of fabrics together to recreate famous works and developing a system for the blind to experience color, perspective and composition.
“We were in an art museum when I was getting ready to retire in 2000 and I couldn’t lose the idea of blind people being able to enjoy art,” Barker said. “I have a deaf friend who loves music, and she listens to it by blowing a balloon up real taut and feeling the vibrations through it. I thought there must be a way to do the same for blind people and artwork.”
Barker’s mother taught her to sew as a young girl and, although she didn’t have much experience with quilting or embroidery, she began working with a needle, thread and a variety of textiles with the goal of sewing artworks that the blind could touch.
She first had friends and family feel different fabric textures with their eyes closed and guess the color of the cloth. When this didn’t yield any answers, she pared her idea down to the essentials.
“I woke up one morning and sitting on my mind was ‘KISS — Keep it simple, Sally,’” she said. “That’s when I decided to only use primary and secondary colors and that’s when I came up with the color wheel.”
Barker’s color wheel included red, yellow, blue, green, orange and purple, with three shades of each hue. Barker knew she wanted red to be silky in texture and blue to be woollen, and she soon decided on other textures for other colors — velvet for green, linen for purple, taffeta for orange.
She differentiated shades by backing the different colored slices of her color wheel with different materials. The darkest shades were backed with cardboard, the medium shades with foam and the lightest with soft quilt batting.
“We also came up with the Barker code, named after my last name and, of course, my husband, Larry Barker, of 57 years,” Barker said. “In the top left corner of the color wheel and every picture we put a Braille ‘B’ so there’s a way to tell if it’s right side up.”
Since 2000, when Barker transformed from a CPA who was head of her community trust department to an artist who quilted color wheels for the blind, her color wheel idea has mushroomed into a much larger enterprise, and Barker has now stitched together over 40 pieces of touchable art, ranging from Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World” to Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn Triptych” to her current work in progress, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”
Feeling the texture of a color helps blind audiences identify a hue, and feeling the sizes of different objects in the works introduces the idea of perspective to these audiences as well. The main idea, though, is to help the blind understand art as a means of communication.
“Most blind people haven’t been able to understand art as a way of saying something,” Barker said. “Sometimes art can be seen as just a pretty picture, and then it’s also difficult for the blind to visit art museums — touching is definitely not encouraged there.”
Her work is on display at Hillsborough’s Margaret Lane Gallery through June 9, after which 12 of the pieces will be sent to the Art Institute of Chicago in July where they will be used for educational programming and other purposes.
Barker’s attention to detailed textures is apparent, from the zigzagged stitches of twine used to make the grasses in “Christina’s World” touchable to the beads stitched under the fabric of Jane Avril’s sleeve, giving the feel of polka dots in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting of the same name — which happens to be one of Barker’s favorite pieces.
Barker’s work is some of the the first of its kind. In a community that seldom focuses on color, she has developed a method for those who can’t see the rainbow to touch it instead.
“I think this is phenomenal work that no one else is doing,” Margaret Lane Gallery Co-owner Mary Knox said. “The first time I experienced it I expected it to be something interesting, not something all-inspiring.”
In addition to making famous works of art accessible for communities who cannot see them, the quilted pictures are also visually striking, featuring a myriad of colors, accurate depictions of the original inspirations for the pieces and hundreds of tiny, even stitches.
Barker, an Orange County resident and Indiana native, has spent the last 20 years of her life on her masterpieces, sometimes working on a piece every day until it is finished. On average, she spends around six months on a piece, except for her copy of Georges Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” which took two years to finish.
She will be working daily on finishing “Nighthawks” over the next few weeks in time for it to travel to Chicago in July, but, after that work is completed, she isn’t sure where her touchable pictures will take her next.
“Ironically, I am losing eyesight,” she said. “My eyesight is deteriorating and I have two different visions in my eyes, so ‘Nighthawks’ might be my last one. I have been thinking about how to do a Monet for awhile though.”
Barker said she isn’t sad to see her work go to Chicago. Over the years, she has given countless pieces away, and this is just one more set that will leave her to serve the public.
“I am stubborn — once I start something I have to finish it,” she said. “At last I feel like ‘ah, my work is done.’ I know my project is unique, but I just hope it doesn’t stay that way in the future.”