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Seeing art through touch at Peconic Landing sculpture garden

Linda Kirk of Port Jefferson slid her hands along the stainless steel of a Hans Van de Bovenkamp sculpture, noting its curves, smooth texture and temperature, warmed by the sun on a late August day at Peconic Landing in Greenport.

She felt the rough rustiness of the steel in “Hard Knocks,” a work by Mike Hansel depicting huge nails that seem to be crawling across the grounds and traced the muscular legs of Jack Howard-Potter’s “WallWalker,” a spider-like figurative sculpture.

“What is it?” she wondered as she worked to create a picture of the artwork in her mind.

Ms. Kirk, who is visually impaired, was on a field trip Monday to the Art Without Barriers sculpture garden behind Brecknock Hall, joined by members of Suffolk Independent Living Organization, the Guide Dog Foundation and the National Federation of the Blind.

The interactive exhibit is about accessibility, allowing visitors to feel the sculptures and listen to descriptive audio to help them visualize the pieces.

“I just enjoy the whole sensory-ness of it,” Ms. Kirk said. “The sun shining down on the metal that, if it were cool, would be quite cold. On a warm day it reflects the heat.

“I think people who are sighted could enjoy it, too,” Ms. Kirk continued, highlighting another goal of the sculpture garden, according to Peconic Landing’s cultural arts curator Dominic Antignano.

“Art is for everyone and I think that’s the important message here,” Mr. Antignano said. He called the garden “one of the best kept secrets on the North Fork,” noting that he’d like to see as many people as possible visit, whether they’re locals or vacationers. The garden is free to explore and is open from June to October.

Joan Diminich feels ‘Hard Knocks,’ a steel work by Mike Hansel. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

Monday’s tour group included people who, like Ms. Kirk, have visited the garden before. But for others, the visit was a chance to try something new.

Tom Miner of Oakdale lost his sight about five years ago, causing him to change his lifestyle completely. Mr. Miner, a former nurse at St. Catherine of Siena Medical Center, was referred to SILO and was interested in following up to meet like-minded people going through a similar experience.

“Being a nurse, you’re a healthy professional. You don’t look at yourself as a patient and this is a change for me, to be dependent more than I already was,” he said. His wife and “main motivator,” Marilyn, suggested he visit the garden as a way to be active and joined him on the tour.

“It was good to get out in the air with new people,” he said. Installations vary year to year, and among this season’s new offerings is “Happy Birthday Andy” by Jack Dowd, meant to commemorate the 90th birthday of famed American pop artist Andy Warhol.

The piece consists of three life-size sculptures of Mr. Warhol atop a base with reproductions of some of his most recognized work. Greenport High School students painted the base with images such as his Campbell’s Soup cans and Mickey Mouse. Nearby, mounted on a board, is a bas relief of Mr. Warhol’s face that visitors can feel.

The piece was well-received by visitors like Victor Neisch of East Marion, who called the garden as a whole “enlightening.” It was also a favorite of Mr. Miner and Joan Diminich, who has visited the garden before and is both visually and hearing impaired. Ms. Diminich, once a painter herself, was surprised to learn that the heads of the full-size Warhol sculptures were each a different color.

The Art Without Barriers sculpture garden at Peconic Landing allows visually impaired visitors to ‘see’ artwork through the sense of touch. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)

“It’s a nice experience,” she said of being able to touch the sculptures.

Kathryn Carroll, an accessibility coordinator and consultant to Peconic Landing, signed questions into Ms. Diminich’s hand. Ms. Carroll, who is legally blind herself, called the garden “amazing.”

Ms. Carroll’s role is to ask questions about how things can be made more accessible for people with different kinds of disabilities. She said would love to see people from other institutions visit the garden and get a sense of whether they could replicate or innovate themselves.

“Just having access to recreational opportunities that are accessible means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to everyone here,” she said.

There are art museums that do not take accessibility into account, Ms. Carroll said, so although they have lots to offer, many people can’t experience it.

SILO representative Marylin Tucci, who helped organize the trip for some visitors, echoed that sentiment.

“When you get to feel this metal art, you have an idea of what it’s all about and how the artist made it and why they thought of making it,” she said.

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