Making Durham’s public art more visible to all

Retired Judge Craig Brown, left, and Dan Ellison unveil one of nine DADA (Durham Audio Described Art) projects Tuesday.
Retired Judge Craig Brown, left, and Dan Ellison unveil one of nine DADA (Durham Audio Described Art) projects Tuesday. The Herald-Sun

For retired Judge Craig Brown, the DADA project (for Durham Audio Described Art) unveiled Tuesday in CCB Plaza represents the removal of a partial barrier to enjoying visual art. Brown has been blind for about 25 years. Before he became blind, he enjoyed visiting museums and galleries, but his blindness took away that enjoyment.

“I couldn’t see it. I couldn’t enjoy it,” Brown told a group gathered at the plaza to unveil the first nine pieces of public art to have accompanying audio descriptions. “But with audio description, technology is breaking the barriers” to enjoyment for the blind and visually impaired, he said. “I cannot tell you how important it is for our city and Duke to help with breaking these barriers.”

A group of 18 students in Duke University’s Service Learning Class, led by attorney and arts advocate Dan Ellison, has been writing, revising and recording descriptions of downtown public art this year. They have written descriptions for Major the Bull, the nearby sculpture The Chalice, The Pursuit of Happiness sculpture, the Parrish Street sculptures commemorating Black Wall Street, and others. Nine more works of art in the Nasher Museum of Art will be added to the audio descriptions.

Each work of art has a notice containing a phone number that can be called. A recording reads the names of the sculptures, allowing the listeners to get a brief description of the work. Eventually, these markers will be permanent plaques including Braille, said Molly Howard, a Public Policy intern at Duke. Eventually, the DADA project participants hope to create an app for cell phones, said Mary Allison, a teaching assistant with the Service Learning Class.

“I credit my mom with this project,” said Ellison, who has led the DADA project. His mom, now in her 90s, was diagnosed with glaucoma when she was 80. Ellison remembered attending a play in Raleigh with his parents in which audio description was used. He began taking classes in arts description and began putting together the project. His father, who has since died, would often tell him “just do it.” The DADA project got some grant money, but “with a lot of collaborators, we did it,” Ellison said.

Partners in the project, in addition to Duke, included the city’s Cultural Advisory Board, Durham Arts Place and Arts Access Inc., a Raleigh nonprofit that seeks to make the arts accessible to all.

Some students from the class were at the dedication — Kiersten Bell, Neda Jamshidi, Michael Biegg and Imara Genias. “Describe, don’t interpret” were the instructions Howard said the students were given. Writing the descriptions proved challenging. For Bell, the difficulty was in knowing the audience, striking a balance between being knowledgeable without being condescending. For Jamshidi, staying concise but including all the information was the challenge. For Genia, the challenge was “trying not to put too much of our personal opinion, trying to be as objective as possible.”

Judge Brown listened to the descriptions and offered suggestions as the students revised their work. In September, Brown said he hopes to lead a tour of arts sites when the North Carolina Council of the Blind holds its convention in Durham.

Students also heard from representatives of nonprofit groups, as well as arts groups and artists, said Allison.”We’re known for our arts here,” Allison said. “It’s Important for people to know the school and community can work together.

DIDA Information

To access audio information about visual art sites, call 919-694-3232 or visit