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Art of sensory deprivation

The Helen Keller international award for artwork that challenges perceptions of deaf-blindness is being extended to under-16s, Di Hope reports

On a visit to Scotland in 1933, Helen Keller, the deaf-blind American campaigner for civil rights, set up a fund to finance an annual essay competition. In 1989 Sense Scotland, which works with children and adults who have deaf-blindness, sensory impairment and learning and physical disabilities, became trustees of the award and transformed it into a multi-media art competition.

Now established as a biannual international event, the competition has gained critical acclaim, with last year's receiving 229 entries from professional, amateur, disabled and non-disabled artists from nine countries, from Russia to Mexico, all taking as their starting point the need to challenge perceptions of deaf-blindness.

This year Sense Scotland has extended the award to include a category for artists under 16, with the winner receiving pound;100 and an award certificate. Like the rest of the competition, it is open to those directly affected by deaf-blindness and to young artists seeking to explore and challenge their own perceptions of the condition.

Gillian Morbey, the chief executive of Sense Scotland, welcomes the inclusion of school students, saying: "The competition will help to bring children's awareness and understanding a bit closer.

"Children with sensory impairment can be potentially vulnerable in mainstream education. I like the fact that this new competition is challenging non-impaired children to come towards them, to seek out some understanding of their world through the imagination.

"As their art has to be related in some way to deaf-blindness, they will have to imagine how it feels, which could be greatly challenging for them.

"We all take our senses so much for granted and tend not to use our sense of smell, taste or touch very intensely on a daily basis, whereas the children we at Sense Scotland deal with do use their residual senses as much as possible."

As in the adult category, the identity of the artists will not be disclosed until the judging, by an independent panel, is complete. So there will be no differentiating between the work of children based on personal experience of deaf-blindness and those exploring new territory through the empathetic power of art, using any medium of their choice.

Submissions last year ranged from photography, video, wall hangings and textiles to sculpture, paintings, stained glass and music. The winning entry was a film by Welsh artist Matthew Humphreys, called The Lost Reels.

It is a moving piece about his father, who was deaf and then became blind.

Previous winners have been painters and sculptors. Their work was bought by Glasgow City Council or used in promotional material for the award.

Perhaps the greatest benefit from the competition is the exhibition of all the submissions, which is open to the public. In 2000, the exhibition at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow was visited by 37,000 people.

With Kelvingrove closed for refurbishment, the 2005 exhibition was showcased in the Collins Gallery.

Ms Morbey is acutely aware of the importance of self-expression.

"The arts have a hugely important effect on our people," she says. "The Helen Keller exhibition has grown out of that. The arts are a vital aid to the communication which is at the heart of our work."

Gayle Calder Wood, the visual arts tutor for Sense Scotland and a trained artist who works one-to-one with the sensory impaired, also emphasises the importance of exhibiting work. It is, she says, part of a process of sharing and communicating, as well as promoting understanding through the thought and imagination they hope to see in the award's new under-16 category.

Entry forms for the next award must be in by April 28. The deadline for artwork is September 1. For an entry form and rules send an A5 sae to The 7th Helen Keller International Award, Sense Scotland, Glasgow G41 1EE, tel 0141 429

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