Lynda Todd wants you to touch the canvases in her new art exhibition — especially if you can’t see them.

The legally blind artist from Peterborough, Ont., learned to paint in 2019. She has since received several awards, including the 2021 Spirit of the Hills Art Award and the 2022 Gordon and Arbie Holnbeck Award, for incorporating disability advocacy into her art.

The most recent example of her advocacy is the exhibition, TAP: Please Touch, which was on view at Peterborough’s Dreams of Beans Café for the month of September. The paintings include 3D models of butterflies, clouds and other typically visual elements that viewers are invited to touch.

Todd said she wanted to design the exhibition to be accessible to people with visual impairment. The title of each work was displayed in large letters and in braille next to each canvas. Sighted guides were on hand to describe the colours, shapes and characters of each piece to visitors.

“I know what it’s like to not be able to see things. They may go by too fast or be too small, or often in galleries artwork might be a few feet behind a roped off area. You’re missing out on so much.” 

To make this exhibition, Todd had to teach herself to combine paint with other mediums, including resin and modelling paste. She said she also had to come up with new strategies to accommodate her own partial colour-blindness. “I label the containers I’m using because even though I may see red in the moment, an hour from now – especially if I’m more tired – I won’t be able to tell that it’s red.”

Lynda Todd is a legally blind Peterborough, Ont., artist who makes are accessible to those with visual impairment. [Photo courtesy Lynda Todd]

Todd hopes her art will motivate more exhibitions to provide similar accommodations in the future since it can also benefit sighted people. 

“They got as much enjoyment from being able to touch it. … It was like a freedom they’ve never had before, because everyone has always been trained not to touch art in galleries,” she said.

Jennifer Kirkpatrick went to the exhibition as a sighted guide for her aunt Christel Galachiuk, who has been blind for 50 years. She also volunteered as a sighted guide and helped four other groups experience the canvases. 

“I’ve always been very partial to anything I can do to help people with disabilities,” she said. “It also made me look much closer at the art. It made me realize how exciting it must be for them to have the same experience I could have.”

Kirkpatrick said even though she has good vision and can experience the paintings visually, being able to feel them was a new experience. For her, it made the art feel more real. 

“There are salmon with their tails curled and butterflies with their wings at different angles. All the plaster and paperwork makes it so textured,” she said. “It’s not something everyone has thought of, which seems crazy now that I’ve seen it.”

Christel Galachiuk said she was especially impressed by the spread wings and antennae of the butterflies. She said the whole gallery was “awesome” and she says she has grown to like a lot of Todd’s work because of its accessibility. Galachiuk hopes other art galleries will take note.

“You can’t touch everything in other galleries because most of it is paintings. They’re like museums,” she said. “If galleries had somebody who could take you and explain it to you, I’d probably go to more.”

The exhibition opened at the Quinte Arts Council Gallery in Belleville on Oct. 5.