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December 22, 2004

She opens world of art to deaf museum visitors

From: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle - Rochester,NY,USA - Dec 22, 2004

Docent helps enlighten through sign language

Greg Livadas
Staff writer

(December 22, 2004) — In an attempt to bring the world of art closer to its deaf visitors, the Memorial Art Gallery has trained a deaf docent who is leading group tours in American Sign Language.

Sporting a contagious wide grin and her hands punctuating the air like swords, Jackie Schertz, 44, of Rochester, recently led a tour at the gallery for the Deaf Girls of Rochester club.

"Hello. It's nice to meet you. I'm Jackie. What school do you go to?" she asked as they arrived in the lobby.

"Welcome. Welcome," she said, as more children filed in.

After the normal warnings to not touch exhibits, Schertz explained how different people perceive art differently, just as people see different shapes formed by clouds. "That's fine," she said.

Schertz, the Memorial Art Gallery's first deaf docent, led the group to a mosaic, explained how it was made and asked the children to think about what design they would make if they could do something similar. She later led the group to centuries-old pottery and then paused in front of a portrait painted in 1550. She pointed out details in the painting that may have been easily overlooked and explained what a coat-of-arms is.

Schertz stopped next to Peeling Onions, a painting by Lilly Martin Spencer. She asked the girls to look carefully at the painting and see why the woman is crying.

"What things do you see on the table? How does the artist make things look so real?" she asked.

She discussed vocabulary such as "genre painting" and "still life."

"This kind of painting reminds us of people or times in our lives," Schertz said. "This is excellent for interactive dialogue between the docent and participants."

Megan Armstrong, 7, of Webster, stood in the front of the group and watched intently as Schertz signed.

"I didn't think she would come, but she really wanted to," said her mother, Donna Armstrong, who stood near the rear of the group. "She understood quite a bit and seemed to enjoy it."

Barbara Stanislow of Pittsford, who organized this tour, plans a return trip.

"I am not an art person, but today, I really found it enjoyable and I definitely want to go back again and spend more time there and bring my family along," she said.

It's that appreciation of art that Schertz, a stained-glass artist, hopes to pass to others.

"Ever since I was a kid, I would be thrilled when I got a box of crayons and some paper," she said.

She visited museums and dreamed of a career with art but "didn't want to risk the starving artist lifestyle."

Her interest was able to better blossom when the art gallery sought help to make its exhibits more accessible.

She started doing the tours in September and has done six of them so far.

"With the nature of visual arts, it's a natural connection," said Susan Dodge-Peters Daiss, the gallery's director of education.

In the early '90s, the gallery worked with Meredith Low, who is active with Self-Help for Hard of Hearing People, to offer accessible tours of an exhibit by Spanish painter Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, who was deaf. The gallery then formed a panel of deaf community members to learn how to better serve its patrons with hearing loss.

"We met Jackie during that period of time," Daiss said. Schertz, who worked at Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf, came to the gallery with a group of students.

"I saw right there, this is what I want to do," Schertz said. "I want to share my love for art and art history with deaf people, using ASL, the language we are most at ease with."

Daiss was equally impressed.

"It was quite clear that art is a very important part of her family background and this was a natural connection she wanted to make with the students at NTID," Daiss said.

Schertz enrolled in a comprehensive docent training class that met each Monday from September through May. An interpreter was provided by the gallery.

"Monday was my favorite day of the week," Schertz said. In return for the training, Schertz is expected to give at least one tour a month for the next three years.

"I plan to do this for much longer than that," she said. "I want deaf and hard-of-hearing people to have a relationship with art, and it makes perfect sense because of the strong visual emphasis in our language and culture."

Daiss hopes to regularly schedule times deaf patrons may visit the gallery to get a tour in sign language. In the meantime, deaf patrons desiring a tour in American Sign Language, or blind visitors who would like auditory tours, may contact the art gallery to schedule an interpreted tour, Daiss said.

Schertz is also able to give a tour for patrons who are both deaf and blind, by using sign language in the patron's hands.

"She has done an absolutely brilliant job," Daiss said.

More information
Another tour is scheduled for Jan. 8. To schedule a tour, call the gallery at (585) 473-7720 or TTY (585) 473-6152.

Copyright 2004 Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.