Blind artist makes work sound great

Keith Salmon, visually impaired artist.  Picture  Robert Perry
Keith Salmon, visually impaired artist. Picture Robert Perry
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A BLIND artist has launched a unique sensory exhibition at the Edinburgh College of Art using sound to add an extra dimension to his work.

Keith Salmon’s dramatic pastel drawings of wild Oregon landscapes will come with multiple accompanying soundtracks triggered by special sensors.

However, the sounds aren’t spoken words, instead, varying tones convey an “audible sense of texture and palette, corresponding with the intensity of the artist’s use of crayon strokes and colour in each part of the drawings.”

Keith, 57, began to lose his sight to diabetic retinopathy twenty years ago but despite now being registered blind, he has won a Jolomo Award for Scottish landscape painting.

“I have had to find ways of working that allow me to overcome the problems inherent in producing very visual material with very limited vision,” he says.

“I wanted to develop a piece of genuinely audio-visual art, not just something with a bolt-on tool for visually impaired people, but something that everyone can enjoy at different levels.

“I have tried to explore my new and changing view, recording with oils or pastel how I now see my surroundings. The images I produce are becoming more distorted and broken. My drawings, built from numerous coloured lines woven together, are more like organised scribbles.”

The technology and support to make his exhibition happen comes courtesy of Microsoft. The corporate giant invited Keith and his partner Anita to its Seattle headquarters last spring after a mutual friend put Keith in contact with Neel Joshi, a Microsoft researcher who was exploring ways of making two-dimensional images more accessible to people affected by visual impairment.

All three of Keith’s (8’x4’) drawings of Oregon’s Hell’s Canyon are divided into six sections, each with its own minute-long pre-recorded soundtrack. These are activated by ‘Kinects’, special scanning cameras which were originally devised for the games industry, installed by Microsoft at the corners of the gallery.

Keith hopes his exhibition might prompt other artists, both sighted and unsighted, to experiment with new ways to marry sound to art.

“I draw with pastels so up close you are seeing more of an abstract of scribbled lines. Each type of mark made a different sound as I made it on the paper so stand close in and you get the sounds,” he said.

“Stand a metre or two back and the sounds change. Now they represent the colour palette used for each drawing and further back you get the sounds of the natural surroundings.”

“Who knows, maybe in five or ten years time people might go to the National Gallery in Edinburgh and instead of just a simple audio-description you get a richer, more immersive audio-interpretation.”