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August 12, 2004

Students illustrate book on signing

From: Boston Globe, MA - Aug 12, 2004

By Wendy Killeen, Globe Correspondent | August 12, 2004

When Gene Fontaine enrolled in an illustration class at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, the last thing he expected to learn was sign language.

Not only did Fontaine become familiar with signing, he -- and a handful of other students -- helped illustrate an American Sign Language dictionary published by Gallaudet University Press.

Gallaudet, in Washington D.C., is the country's premiere school for the deaf and hard of hearing. Northern Essex, which has extensive programs in deaf studies, sign language, and for deaf students, serves as the Gallaudet Regional Center for the Northeast.

"It was a good experience. And it definitely looks good on a resume," said Fontaine, 25, of Amesbury, who graduated from Northern Essex in 2003 with an associate's degree in graphic design. "When I saw my name printed [in the credits], it was a pretty great feeling."

Jill Porco, who supervised the project for Gallaudet Press, said the book, "1,000 Signs of Life," has been a big seller since its release in the spring.

The target audience, she said, is people who want to learn the basics of American Sign Language for everyday conversation. The handbook includes illustrations of signs for words and phrases in 17 categories, including animals, seasons, days of the week, colors, transportation, and emotions.

Porco said the book is a popular item in school libraries. "There are a lot of sign language programs in elementary and high schools, where kids learn it as a second language," she said. "And, some colleges have it as a foreign language requirement."

The Northern Essex students' involvement began in 2001 with an assignment in an illustration class taught by Lance Hidy.

Hidy, of Merrimac, a poster designer, printmaker, photographer, typographer, and illustrator, had seen sign language diagrams in Scientific American created with Adobe Illustrator, the software program the class was learning.

He decided to have his class create similar diagrams.

"It clicked for me because [the college] has a big American Sign Language department," he said. He teamed up with Patrick McCarthy, a professor of American Sign Language at Northern Essex.

McCarthy arranged for sign language interpreters to model the signs for the artists. He also agreed to critique the illustrations.

"The work turned out beautifully," said Hidy. He and McCarthy took the illustrations to Washington in 2002 and showed them to editors at Gallaudet.

Coincidentally, the publishers were looking for artists to help with the dictionary, which was already in progress but behind schedule.

Then the work really began.

A team of artists was formed, including Fontaine, Cherie Burton-Slagle, Elissa Dawson, Andrea Grant, Christie Gymziak, Mark Madigan, Julie O'Wril, and Andrea Shine.

Hidy, who had to step aside because of additional teaching responsibilities, brought in Claire Spellman of West Newbury, former chairwoman of the graphic design department at Middlesex Community College, as art director.

Working together and independently, the artists set out to create the illustrations. They began by viewing videos of people signing, but that proved difficult because the fingers were often blurred. McCarthy helped by explaining the signs and providing interpreters to perform them.

The artists first made pencil drawings, then created the illustrations on computers. One challenge was inserting arrows to convey the motion of the signs.

"Signing is very technical," said Dawson, 45, of Haverhill, who is Fontaine's aunt. And because it is usually done quickly and smoothly, it's easy to miss the subtleties, she said.

And, Fontaine said, "Facial expressions are an important aspect of it. That's something I never realized about signing."

Burton-Slagle, 46, of the Bradford section of Haverhill, said she learned there are different dialects in sign language and some signs change over time to ensure they are politically correct.

O'Wril, 35, of Lowell, got help from her 8-year-old daughter. "She was fascinated with it and picked up sign language," O'Wril said. "I used her as my model."

And, she said, "Learning the signs myself made it easier to draw them. I found the whole experience very interesting."

The evolution of the project from class assignment to job also added challenges.

"We experienced what it was like to get stuff sent back and have to do it again," Fontaine said. "There was a lot of getting things just right."

"They were not doing student work, they were doing professional work, and the demands were high," Spellman said. "When it's for publication, it has to be right."

McCarthy said of the artists, "I found them to be excellent team players and flexible with this rather complicated, if not daunting, task. Initially, it was thought to be easy, but with draft corrections, students came to realize the wealth and depth of American Sign Language with its varying linguistic inflections and nuances."

The artists also had to learn to manage their time and meet deadlines. "When you are working on lots of little illustrations, if you are off by 10 minutes and magnify that by 200, it becomes a significant [time] miscalculation," Hidy said.

To help students with project management, Hidy enlisted the help of friend and business consultant Polly Wessel. She aided the students in creating a workflow chart, estimating the time required for each stage of each illustration and an overall budget.

"That was an important part of the learning experience for them and me," said Hidy.

The project also taught the artists about empathy.

"I never thought of the deaf side of life until this," said Mark Madigan, 35, of Haverhill. "I liked working with the people, and helping them out, as well."

"It made us realize the general public is not very compassionate, at times, to people who are hearing impaired," said Burton-Slagle. "Having done this opens it up for you to be more compassionate and receptive."

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.