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December 10, 2003

Dave McCarthy: A touch of illusion

From: Providence Journal Bulletin, RI - Dec 10, 2003

Sometimes a shell game is more than it appears

SOUTH KINGSTOWN -- Tony Monahan likes to joke about the fast one he pulled on those smart folks at the University of California at Berkeley.

They commissioned the Wakefield teacher and artist, then living in California, to do an abstract for their administration building.

Instead, Monahan gave Cal-Berkeley a turtle.

Oh, the blue on blue painting, called Dermochelys Coriacea (submerged), looks like an abstract -- until Monahan reveals the illusion that allows you to unmask his trickery.

"They think it's an abstract, but it's really the back of a leatherback turtle," Monahan laughed. "They wanted abstract, they got turtle."

Maybe those learned folks at Berkeley should have gotten it from the name. It's Latin for a leatherback turtle (submerged, of course).

Illusion and turtles are what Monahan's art is all about.

It's a fascination that he credits with helping save his life, and, beginning tomorrow, will bring joy and hopefully inspiration to students at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, N.Y.

Journal photo /Bill Murphy
A SENSUAL ART: The works of tony Monahan are meant to be touched to appreciate the tru menaing of the work. The piece he is standing next to, 81 Squares in Braille, will be on dispaly permanently at the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, N.Y.
He will make the journey to Long Island to deliver his latest art work in person for its unveiling at 1 tomorrow at the Helen Keller center. It will have a permanent home in the center's lobby.

The 3-dimensional work, titled 81 Squares In Braille, like all his art projects, was planned with mathematical precision -- to ensure the illusion works and to make people, particularly children, think.

"I don't consider myself an artist," Monahan said. "I consider myself first and foremost a teacher. I like to use my art work to teach. To me it's a form of problem solving."

The turtles?

"It's a fascination I've had my entire life. I even have a pet tortoise," he said. "I also like to do art that children can understand and identify with. Children can understand turtles."

A Narragansett native with undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Rhode Island, Monahan, 44, and his wife, Lisa, a Little Compton native, traveled the world before settling in California where he worked as a physical education teacher with special needs students in the Berkeley Unified School District.

It wasn't until 1997 that he started, as he put it, "doing art." He decided early on that "doing art" should include a tribute to the person he saw as his hero and as an inspiration to special needs kids everywhere, the remarkable Helen Keller.

Born in 1880 in Alabama, Helen Adams Keller, at age 18 months, suddenly lost her sight and hearing. How she overcame her disabilities, with the help of teacher Anne Sullivan -- and changed from an out-of-control child into an articulate spokeswoman for the disabled -- is the stuff of legend, detailed in the play and movie The Miracle Worker.

In doing the mathematical work for 81 Squares in Braille, Monahan came to the conclusion it would take three years to complete his tribute to Helen Keller.

Meanwhile, three years ago, he and his wife decided to move back to Rhode Island so that they and their daughter, Marisol, 6, could grow up close to their families, including grandparents.

He got a job teaching a class at Rhode Island College. His wife, also in special education, is a literacy coach in the Newport School Department.

Then, in March, 2001, Monahan suddenly lost the use of his arms and legs while undergoing treatment for a kidney stone. "I thought it was an allergic reaction to the anesthesia."

He ended up in Rhode Island Hospital gasping for breath and wondering whether he would survive. He couldn't even swallow. "I went six weeks without eating any food."

It took a month for doctors to diagnose a rare disease called dermatomyositus, which attacks and destroys soft tissue -- muscle, fat and skin.

He would spend the next two years in and out of hospitals, for operations, blood transfusions and heavy doses of steroids.

At first, he had only the use of four fingers -- the thumb and forefinger on each hand. But it was enough for him to cut and tear the 10,000 tiny pieces of paper needed for the Keller project.

Because he now had the time to devote completely to the Keller project, he finished it in 20 months, instead of the 36 months his math had told him it would take.

He credits the project for a big part of his recovery: "The piece kept me focused while I was in the hospital and it kept me from despair. It's part of the things that saved my life."

Today, he said, "I consider myself in recovery, and one day I will completely overcome this."

He is also back at work, as a physical education lecturer and coordinator of student teaching at URI.

81 Squares in Braille is 31 1/2 inches by 13 1/2 inches containing 81 2 1/2 inch black and white squares.

On Monday, the work hung in his dining room. Monahan had a visitor view the work from his living room into the dining room. From a distance, the work appears to form an undulating pattern with the ends of each row tapering.

But as one approaches 81 Squares in Braille, it becomes clear that each row of squares is straight; they don't undulate, they don't taper.

Each black and white square contains a three-dimensional turtle of the same color. You must touch the work in order to "see" the turtles.

"A blind person who touches the piece with his or her fingers to feel the tortoises is the best audience for this work," Monahan said.

Joseph McNulty, executive director of the Helen Keller center, said his organization is delighted to be receiving Monahan's Helen Keller tribute.

The center has 36 to 38 students, of all ages, at any given time, and they stay anywhere from a couple of weeks to 18 months. The average stay is nine months.

These are people who lost their hearing and are now losing their sight, or vice versa; those born deaf and blind, and those who have become deaf and blind through trauma, such as car accidents or gunshot wounds. The students include many elderly who have lost or are losing their sight and hearing.

McNulty said the goal of the center, established by Congress in 1969, is to have each student leave with the ability to live and work in his or her home community.

"One of the areas we deal with is what to do with leisure time," McNulty said. "Most people work 40 hours a week and then come home and watch TV or listen to the radio. If you're deaf and blind, you don't have that opportunity."

But deaf and blind people can do arts and crafts, and he thinks 81 Squares in Braille will serve as an inspiration for some of his students to turn to art.

"The beauty of Tony's work is that it was created for people who can't see," McNulty said.

And it fits in with a center philosophy. Said McNulty: "We want to show the public not just the potential of deaf-blind people but the accomplishments of deaf-blind people."

Monahan said 81 Squares in Braille contains "positive energy and I want to share that energy with the folks at Helen Keller and hope they take that energy and share it with other people."

Monahan's artwork is not for sale. Instead, he tries to find appropriate homes for his work.

A work hangs on his living room wall that is looking for a home. It's a group of three-dimensional turtles that follow each other into a spiral pattern.

It's called The Fibonacci Procession, named after mathmetician Leonardo Pisano Fibnoacci, whose work in the late 12th and early 13th centuries produced a formula -- a numbers sequence -- that can be used for the creation of spirals.

"I had to follow the exact formula to do the piece," Monahan reported.

For more infomation about the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults go to

© 2003 Providence Journal Bulletin