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Hands provide vision for blind clay artist

Bob Hartley left assists artist Karen Bailey sculpting panther out clay Muncie Ind. Bailey is almost totally blind.  |

Bob Hartley, left, assists artist Karen Bailey in sculpting a panther out of clay in Muncie, Ind. Bailey is almost totally blind. | Star Press Photo/Distributed by the Associated Press

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Updated: January 27, 2014 6:09AM



MUNCIE — Ask Karen Bailey her favorite thing about sculpting with clay, and she wastes no time in answering.

“I love to see it when it comes out of the kiln,” she told The Star Press, her hands working a mound of dark gray clay downtown at The Artist Within, where she pursues her passion for ceramics two or three times a week.

The thing is, she is almost totally blind.

“I’ve lost my color vision and a lot of detail,” said the 59-year-old native New Englander, trying to describe to a visitor the formless gray, black and white images her eyes faintly make out.

Instead, she sees with her hands.

“For me,” she said, “my sense of touch is my vision.”

Before her were five reclining ceramic dogs she sculpted earlier, each about six inches long and including three Labradors, one German Shepherd and one Golden Retriever, all remarkably detailed from snout to tail. Sitting patiently, sweetly beside her, meanwhile, was Zelda, her yellow lab guide dog, patiently taking in the scene with serene brown eyes.

Lightly running her fingers over her ceramic dogs’ forms, Bailey talked about them, taking delight in each.

“I’m just looking them over here,” she said with satisfaction while caressing each piece, “because I haven’t seen them since they’ve been fired. I have to say, they don’t look bad.”

Meanwhile, she spoke some about herself, too.

A premature baby, Bailey noted her vision troubles began shortly after birth, when the administration of too much oxygen destroyed her retinas, eventually leading to five other serious eye conditions that resulted in the legal blindness she lives with today. For a while back East, she had worked as a state social worker with the blind, work she had to quit when a particular form of glaucoma, one that attacks the organs, nearly killed her.

A skilled guitarist who has played music for 50 years, her passion for sculpting with clay went mostly unfulfilled until family circumstances forced her move here. Having learned of The Artist Within and its owner, Bob Hartley, she found her way to the shop about a year and a half ago.

Early on, she said, Hartley slammed a mound of clay before her and said, “Do it to it.”

“I said, ‘Oh, he’s testing me,’” she recalled with a smile. “I guess he was trying to figure out what I could do.”

Her first sculpted work was a dog, a German shepherd. During a showing shortly thereafter at The Artist Within, it failed to sell, though her fingers got a good workout entertaining shoppers on guitar for three hours. But then she made a funky-looking little owl, and it soon sold, and then her German shepherd sold after that.

This day, as she prepared to work on a commissioned piece of a seated leopard, other works of hers were on display at the front of the shop, including another funky owl, an impressive parrot and a couple of cool ceramic sailboat scenes, those a paean to her days on Cape Cod.

Soon, Hartley, who is vital to Bailey’s sculpting process, joined her at the work table.

“Let’s work on your leopard,” he said. “I would start it much like you do your dogs.”

Because this leopard would be sitting on its haunches, however, he first fashioned a small wooden armature curving from a base, wrapping the stand in newsprint and masking tape, just to provide a general form as Bailey began attaching clumps of clay to it.

As she worked, Hartley made occasional comments.

“I’d go ahead and get your legs blocked in” he told her at one point, handing her two small lumps of clay to build up those legs. “The leopard’s right leg is skinnier than the left leg. ... It’s a lot like your dogs. Feel how its neck goes into its chest? ... Now they’re usually sleek, but that one has a big butt.”

“Yeah, it does have a big butt,” she acknowledged of the leopard, before taking steps to correct it.

As they worked together, the leopard’s initial form began to take shape, something that impresses both Hartley and Bailey.

“It makes you realize we take so much for granted,” he said, watching her diligent efforts as she formed the clay, intermittently feeling a small model of a leopard to check its proportions against her own creation’s. “In her mind’s eye, she’s seeing exactly what she’s working on.”

Her take on things?

“It’s kind of therapeutic, and I like the feeling of creating,” said Bailey, who lives alone and enjoys long walks on Cardinal Greenway, when she can “cajole” someone to accompany her. “I told Bob, I don’t care if I do this for the rest of my life.”



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