Karen Thomas

April Sullivan, artworks director for VSA Texas, poses in front of gallery art pieces on Monday afternoon. Sullivan and VSA, the State Organization on Arts and Disability, orchestrated an art show composed of pieces authored by people with disablities. The show opens on Saturday.

Photo Credit: Jorge Corona | Daily Texan Staff

At the age of 15, Karen Thomas lost all usable vision. Now, 27 years later, she is getting ready for her first ever art show being put on by VSA Texas, or Very Special Arts.

“So much can be accomplished, regardless of whether or not you’re disabled,” Thomas said. “I’m so excited to be in my first show, but I’m still a work-in-progress.”

VSA Texas is the state organization for arts and disability, a nonprofit organization that works to create a society where people with disabilities learn and participate in the arts.

“Artists that are blind, have mental illnesses, are hearing impaired and are even autistic, no matter the disability, they’re all talented artists,” said April Sullivan, artworks director for VSA Texas.

The Third Annual Holiday Show began Nov. 28 and will continue through Jan. 6. The artwork from the show is completely handmade, with 23 artists selected from across the state to show off their talent. Each purchase will support artists with disabilities who are making their living through their creative talents.

“For a lot of us, we don’t really have time to work on art,” Sullivan said. “But these artists have time and make it their livelihood. It’s one of the best ways they have to express themselves.”

Last year, Thomas attended the Holiday Show and noticed there wasn’t any art featuring Braille. After the death of her seeing-eye dog, a dog that was her pair of eyes and a “real treasure” of hers for 17 years, Thomas knew she needed to find a creative outlet.

She immediately began working with clay, thinking of innovative ways to incorporate Braille into original pieces of art.

“Braille is truly an essential that you can read or write with,” Thomas said. “I think that anyone that is losing vision should know how to use it. Even if it’s just for labeling purposes — it’s critical.”

Thomas had to take a crash course in Braille and learned the system of raised bumps in five weeks after experiencing rapid vision loss. As an advocate for learning Braille, she believes it’s not difficult to learn, but admits that it does take time to gain speed.

However, she doesn’t let her lack of vision hinder her artistry. Like the other artists that will be participating in the Holiday Show, Thomas has used her disability to allow herself to find her strengths.

“There are a lot of blind people that are really good knitters and weavers, but clay is an equally tactile medium,” Thomas said.

To create her artwork, Thomas uses ovens to bake and self-harden to create her Braille print and incorporate it into Christmas ornaments, greeting cards, bookmarks and a few other crafts.

“I want people to find that greeting cards and ornaments can be accessible to everyone,” Thomas said. “I’m really just having fun making these everyday items into something tactile.”

Like Thomas, local printmaker Carole Zoom has been passionate about her art for years, but it wasn’t until after her tracheostomy in 2001 that she really had the time to devote to her work. Now she is able to spend two to six hours each week day to create her woodblock prints with water-based ink and handmade Japanese paper.

“My mom sent me the print I made in middle school, and after that I made a few more,” Zoom said. “It’s a sustainable process and a really neat hobby.”

Zoom is active in the Women Printmakers of Austin, where she gets together with local women to critique and learn from each other’s mistakes. She says that the carving aspect is easy, but due to her lack of lateral strength, at times, it requires more help. At this year’s Holiday Show, she will be showing off her original prints and also her reproductions.

“I’ve tried to include a variety of decorative pieces,” Zoom said. “I’d like everyone to see my range. There’s just so many possibilities when it comes to prints.”

Zoom, Thomas and the rest of the artists participating in the show have high expectations for their artwork. While Zoom wants to provide variety, Thomas hopes that after experiencing her exhibit, people will leave more interested in the use of Braille.

“I want to educate people that art can be accessible for everyone,” Thomas said. “I want my art to be attractive by both sight and touch.”

Printed on Tuesday, November 29, 2011 as: Holiday exhibit showcases talented disabled artists