The Conception, Gestation and Birth of Squeak
By Karen Nelson
Art Student at Braille Institute of America, Los Angeles
At 63 years old, my third mosaic art piece ever was Squeak. Visual art was always the purview of my older sister, Kris. I didn’t approach visual arts until I was 45 years old. This was always her thing in our family. I was most comfortable with verbal arts: poetry, essays, stories.
My first mosaic at Braille was a simple trivet, the picture of a sunflower. From the get-go, it seemed clear to me that I was most happy with a challenge. Even the trivet was not as simple as it could have been. I’m sure my instructors quickly became aware of this as well. I jumped from the trivet to an 18 inch by 24 inch picture of an owl sitting inside of a tree hollow. Depth, texture, light and shadow all challenged me. At Braille, we students are all visually impaired to a greater or lesser extent. Braille doesn’t discriminate. All are welcome in the visual arts courses. My instructors were mostly very supportive. However, they soon learned of my slight eccentricity when my first instructor pointed to an upside-down tile in my second piece and advised me of it. My response was, “Owlbert [the owl’s name is Owlbert Einstein] told me to do it that way.” Her response was a somewhat skeptical “Okaaaaaay,” as she walked away.
The entire piece was made up of a combination of ceramic and glass tiles. Owlbert himself was made up of glass tiles. It took me more than a year to complete the piece. When I described him to a blind friend, she enthusiastically exclaimed that she would like to feel how he looks. Mortified, I explained that it would not be a good idea since his tiles were glass and sharp. They might cut her fingers. She laconically replied, “Oh. That’s good for Braille!” Consequently, I was cognizant of this when contemplating how to complete my third piece, a tiger cub sitting in a field of wild flowers.
It’s easier for me to be invested in artwork by naming art that represents an animated figure of some kind. Consequently, the sunflower trivet has no name. The owl does. After my new mosaic instructor traced the outlines of the tiger cub onto a board, I spent some time, with head in hand, wondering what his name should be. After a while, the instructor approached me and asked me if I was okay. I replied, “Yes. I’m just waiting for him to tell me his name.” Again, I got a skeptical “Okaaaaay.” Suddenly, the image of his fully-grown parents sitting on either side of him appeared in my mind. They both opened their mouths wide and roared. Then he opened his mouth as wide as he was able, and out came a squeak, hence his name! Now, I was able to start work.
Squeak, himself, was made of ceramic tiles. A few black glass tiles surround his ears (shadow) and represent his stripes. In my mind, Squeak kept talking to me. People around me seemed to greatly enjoy his sort-of running commentary. “Squeak is happy today, because he got his stripes!” Completing him took about seven months, working about 90 minutes once a week. As I completed him, I decided to make the surrounding wild flower field out of synthetic flowers that came from a party store and which had been strung together into three Hawaiian lei`s. Then it occurred to me that I could truly make this piece into something visually impaired or blind people might enjoy. All of this time, while working on mosaics, I was learning how to read and write braille. Initially, I considered simply writing his name in braille on one side and “by” my name on the other side underneath the flowers. I sat down at home and figured out how many braille bumps I would need (75). A couple of days later, I woke up one morning with the first stanza of a poem in my head: “When I awoke in this field of dreams, I’d lost a friend but gained a soul.” That is what needed to be under the wild flowers (115 braille bumps).
The next process was affixing the braille bumps to either side of the board. “Oooooh, I’ve been brailled!” Squeak exclaimed. I used rubberized braille bumps super-glued to the board. Then I glued the flowers on top of the board and braille bumps. Squeak was so excited…”I finally got lei`d!!!!” Some people raised their eyebrows in mild disapproval at this. I had to explain that he is just a cub and doesn’t really know what that means. The only thing he knows is that it gets a rise from people, so he continues to say it! The next trial was finding materials for his whiskers. A good friend came up with a guitar string cut into pieces. She very kindly drove to a local guitar shop and purchased the string for me. She would not allow me to reimburse her. Lastly, Squeak got framed! He couldn’t understand that either! FYI, I should have framed him first and then glued on the flowers. It was another challenge to make sure none of the flowers were trapped between the board and the frame! Framed or not, Squeak is so proud to be, and, even though he has whiskers and was lei’d, he is still a cub!