Creative visionaries: Asheville’s Industries for the Blind brings art to the mind’s eye

She molds the terra cotta-colored clay in her hands, its soft texture obeying every pinch, roll and press from its creator. As Lou Mahoney continues to work the cool material, she smiles when everything feels right. Then, her fingers pause.

“I might need a little more clay,” she says.

The 63-year-old is using her intuition to sculpt a Christmas bell despite being born completely blind. After about 15 minutes, the material no longer resembles a thick block of clay. Even though she doesn’t see the bell as a sighted person would, Mahoney hasn’t lost her eye for creativity.

“It’s just an inner feeling in my soul that I feel, a sense of peace, and I feel a sense that what I’m doing is mine. Even though I’m getting a little help, it’s my design; it’s what I want to do creatively,” she says.

Mahoney is one of nine people who are getting creative on Saturday mornings at Industries for the Blind Asheville, located on Sardis Road. In May, the company started offering a series of free two-hour art classes taught by local artist Kenn Kotara.

Though he has led art classes before, Kotara found that teaching the visual arts to a group of people who are either visually impaired or blind requires a modified lexicon.

“The term ‘vision’ in visual becomes a moot point because we can see [pieces of art], but when they say they see, it’s a different outcome altogether,” he says. “I must be very literal when I’m speaking about the visual arts language because the vocabulary is set up for people who have sight primarily. So one [thing I can do] is to focus on the tactile.”

During the first two classes, Kotara had his students work with clay. But just as the instructor had to adapt to the needs of his students, he also had to adapt to the needs of his classroom. Teaching in the cafeteria at the local IFB, Kotara had no kiln to fire the clay. He did, however, have access to a kitchen stove. This led him to Sculpey, a man-made clay that can be baked in a conventional oven. 

“We had to really think about what we were going to produce and then how they could do it easily enough to take it home,” says Kotara.

Though he had thought of the clay and a few other logistical issues, his students still managed to surprise him after creating their first ceramic pieces.

“Interestingly enough, they stated they wanted to paint them,” Kotara says.

In fact, Mahoney insisted that she paint her bell blue and silver, her mother’s favorite colors. Even though she’s never seen either of those hues, that doesn’t mean Mahoney can’t sense blue in her mind’s eye.

“I picture, like, some colors warm,” she explains. “One of my former bosses who ran a switchboard and was training me, he said he pictured colors by taste like blueberries are blue; and strawberries are red; and apples are green; and bananas are yellow.”

But not all of the students attending the art class were born blind. Having the degenerative eye disease known as retinitis pigmentosa, Joann Baker gradually lost her vision.

“Most people can see a whole circle, but I see a little, tiny 5 degrees right in the center. It’s like looking through a drinking straw,” Baker explains.

She gestures to her ceramic piece, which features a detailed flower in the center of the decorative plate.

“If you do something like this,” she says, pointing to the petals, “this was done mainly by feel.”

For Becky Willis, another student, feeling is seeing.

“I like to feel stuff and feel the texture and shape. I do that with pretty much anything so I can tell what is what,” she says. The Burnsville resident was diagnosed with Stargardt disease when she was 6 years old, gradually losing her sight over time — not that this has stopped her. 

“A lot of things visually impaired people are limited on. This is just something that I’d like to see what I can do with it,” she says of sculpting. 

This, Harry Peck says, is what this class is all about. Peck works at the local IFB as a low vision associate, and it was his idea to start the art class. Now, Peck shares, IFB hopes to continue the class for months to come, maybe with more local artists volunteering their time.

Peck used to paint with acrylics before his optic nerve began to atrophy, causing his visual acuity to go from 20/20 to 20/200 in his left eye and 20/400 in his right. Now, he says the class has inspired him to “pull out the canvas in the closet that’s been there for eight years.” He emphasizes, “Just because someone is blind or doesn’t see well doesn’t mean they don’t have art in their soul.”

For Mahoney, she says the opportunity to create goes beyond making a blue and silver bell.

“It gives me a good feeling to know that when I cook something or when I made that little bell, I just feel a sense of, ‘My God! I’m actually doing something.’ And even if somebody looks at it [the bell] and says, ‘Well, I wouldn’t picture something that way,’ well, I would — because that’s how I picture things. It’s my individuality that makes it special.”

Caitlin Byrd can be reached at or 251-1333, ext.140.


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