Experiencing Art with Vision Loss in the Film “Straight Off the Canvas”

Winner Award of Merit - Accolade Global Film Competition

Editor’s note: Although this film is not available for public viewing at this time, this review of the film gives the reader insights into the fulfillment that art can bring to the creator, whether blind or sighted, and how important it is to encourage artistic talent in children and adults.  The reviews also demonstrate how vital good audio description is to the viewer who is blind or has low vision. 

For readers not familiar with audio description, the definition provided by the American Council of the Blind Audio Description project is as follows: “the accessibility of the visual images of theater, television, movies, and other art forms for people who are blind, have low vision, or who are otherwise visually impaired.  It is a narration service (provided at no additional charge to the patron) that attempts to describe what the sighted person takes for granted — those images that a person who is blind or visually impaired formerly could only experience through the whispered asides from a sighted companion.”

A Little About Myself

Before losing my sight, I was on the path of a new career in the fashion industry. Back in the late 1990s I was taking night classes in fashion design and merchandising at a local art college after work. As part of the course curriculum, I had to take art classes that included painting and drawing. I worked with watercolor and acrylic paints and drew with charcoal and pencils. But as my vision decreased and it became harder and harder to see my canvas, colors, and still models, I withdrew from school. I gave away all my art supplies to an artsy friend and moved on from that career path.  

Straight Off the Canvas Film 

Fast-forward to 2014, I decided to try a little art again, partly to challenge myself, boost my self-esteem, and explore my creativity. I recalled these artistic memories while watching the documentary Straight Off the Canvas.  Produced and written by Jason Figueira and Anthony Saldana, the film explores how blind and visually impaired students, teachers, and artists in New York generate art. Many art production methods are described along with distinct types of art such as painting, drawing, and clay. The viewer gets to observe firsthand the several ways of creative expression.  

Film Addresses Stereotypes 

Straight Off the Canvas doesn’t brush over stereotypical images of blind and low vision people in art. Instead, it faces them head-on. It addresses the notion that only sighted people can create art. It communicates this is not true with its direct conversations, images, and programs for people with vision loss. This was one of the main goals of its creator and award-winning filmmaker, Anthony Saldana. While working at a museum, he pondered the question, “How do blind people perceive art?” From there, he started researching art and blindness, making contacts, and the rest, as they say, is history. 

Film Review 

I thought the film was a good representation of blind and visually impaired people enjoying art. I liked that blind artists were in the film because it showed that art is possible. The art teachers working with blind and visually impaired students also reflected on this point. It was easy to see they believed in their students and wanted them to be just as successful as their sighted peers. One student was even able to get help from his teacher when applying to a special art high school. Attending this school would have allowed him to pursue his craft and flourish as a student. 

Audio Description Review 

The film was available in audio description, which provides verbal narration of what is happening on the screen. I am a true lover of audio-described movies and films. I also love documentaries which typically are not always audio described. However, I do have some critiques with the delivery of the description. I noticed on several occasions the description was not…Well, descriptive. What I mean is being subjective instead of describing the scene. For instance, in the beginning, “loving” was used to describe a couple. But how do you know they are loving? What is happening in the scene that tells you that? Instead of using the word “loving,” tell what the couple is doing. Are they holding hands? Are they smiling at each other?  

I also noticed throughout the film terms like “in this scene,” “title of,” and this scene” were used. These introductory phrases occupied needed space where actual descriptions could be placed. Instead, jump right in and describe what is there. The last thing I noticed was that no description of what people looked like was given. There were several interviews of blind artists, teachers, and students, but I didn’t know what they looked like. No hair or eye color. No skin tone or racial background. No description of what they were wearing. Aside from these criticisms, the audio description was helpful, and I am glad it was available. This film is a true gem for art lovers. If you are curious about how blind people express themselves through art, this documentary is worth a watch. 

 About Empish J. Thomas

Empish J. Thomas is writer/blogger who lost her vision due to uveitis. Her passions are reading audiobooks, listening to podcasts, and audio description. Visit Empish online and read her blog at www.empishthomas.com.