Feb. 08, 2014 @ 07:15 PM

The “Please Do Not Touch” sign doesn’t exist here.

In the main lobby of the Duke Eye Center, past patients speed-walking to appointments and staff making their ways to exam rooms, is Raku-fired steel. Blue-glazed ceramics with Egyptian patterns. A bird with a metal cage for a belly.

Patients with low vision, whether they’re being treated for glaucoma or going through cataract surgery, don’t have to rely on seeing alone to admire pieces in the touchable art gallery.

The Duke Eye Center alone has three exhibit spaces, but this is the first time the center has invited North Carolina artists who specialize in ceramics to participate in a touchable art show.

Betty Haskin, a landscape painter and the center’s arts coordinator, has held onto the idea for five years, just now making it a reality right before her spring retirement.

“It’s hands-on,” Haskin said. “It offers a unique experience. Anyone can come in and touch.”

Volunteers and visitors with low vision have responded to the striking shapes and bright colors.

This exhibit features fifteen artists who live in North Carolina, with some representing other countries such as Japan and Germany.

Patients can pick up tea bowls of both smooth and rough textures or interact with a ceramic slab formed like a grid, on which a person can move tiny tea cups along the grid lines.

Uli Schempp, originally from Germany, was invited to display his work at the eye center. He works in a studio outside of Carrboro off N.C. 54, where he shares space with cabinet makers and instrument repairers as well as artists who specialize in sculpture, furniture and stained glass.

He Raku-fires the steel he uses in his artwork, which means the glaze melts and becomes glass, and while the piece is glowing hot, he envelops it with organic materials such as leaves or sawdust.

“It’s the experience of touch that’s really something inherent in sculpture,” Schempp said.

He said he has never been featured in an exhibit specifically for visually impaired people.

“They have a life of their own,” he said of his ceramic pieces. “When I start, I have a general idea of what it might be, but it usually turns out to become something totally different.”

As coordinator, Haskin regularly stops by the gallery, talking with some of her volunteers who travel around the waiting rooms to share art and musical instruments while patients wait on test results or their next appointment.

“We want to take care of people,” Haskin said. “We don’t want to make them more anxious.”

She moved toward a shelf in the tiny gallery, stroking a ceramic bird with metal cage feathers as if it were real.

“I think this invites investigation,” she said, popping open the breast and tail of the bird, where someone could enclose a small note in the cage.

The messenger bird was created by Julie Olson, who lives in Durham and teaches advanced pottery classes at N.C. State University. She opened a gallery at her house where visitors are invited to touch her artwork.

Olson creates little hinged boxes made of clay and metal. For her intricate cage birds, the tail alone takes six hours to craft.

“People need to touch my work in order to appreciate it,” she said.

Dr. David Epstein, chairman of the Duke ophthalmology department, said when he first arrived at Duke Eye Center 22 years ago, he worked with Mary and James Semans, relatives of the Duke family, to put their art collection on display at the center and make it touchable. They were sculptures people could feel.

The Semans artwork was originally housed in the eye center basement. But 21 years ago, Epstein decided to form a little lobby gallery.

A Duke Eye Center building addition is currently under construction, and Epstein said he hopes to take that opportunity to expand the touchable art gallery as well as include an art sensory garden in a courtyard between both buildings.

“It’s beautiful, it’s important,” Epstein said of the touchable art initiative. “It sends the right message.”

These North Carolina pieces will be on display until March 15 in the main Eye Center lobby.


Duke Eye Center addition expected to open fall 2015

DURHAM — The Duke Eye Center building is about 40 years old, but the new clinical building currently under construction is expected to ease patient wait times and add more space for ophthalmology research, according to Dr. David Epstein, chairman of the Duke ophthalmology department.

The eye center, also known as the Wadsworth Building, logged close to 80,000 patient visits last year.

“The Wadsworth Building was state-of-the-art 40 years ago,” Epstein said, “and the ophthalmology practice has changed.”

The new building, named “Hudson” after a $12-million gift from President Bill Hudson of LC Industries in Durham, is slated to open in fall of 2015 and add about 127,000 square feet of space over four floors and allow for a 10-percent growth in patients.

The new building will include an ocular innovation center on the top floor, where scientists and students can develop new surgical instruments or drugs relating to eye care, as well as more precise instrumentation in exam rooms.

— April Dudash