HUNTINGTON — Touching the art is a no-no at most museums. At Dr. Stephanie Skolik’s exhibit, it’s encouraged.
At the Huntington Museum of Art, Skolik melds oil, pastel, watercolor, charcoal and other types of paintings into a multisensory approach, including 3-D clay interpretations for visitors, especially blind and visually impaired people, to experience.
Skolik combines her four-decade love of painting with her long career as an ophthalmologist for her first major exhibit “Inner and Outer Vision” on display through Jan. 25.
“I live in such a visual world, because the people I see, vision is so precious and is so in danger for them, that I appreciate every pixel of light,” Skolik said. “It just warms my heart every time I see ink coming out of the pen or paint on the end of the paintbrush. The vividness and the specific way that I see that is maybe not what someone else sees, but I really want to share that with somebody.”
Thousands have so far, including busloads of children from area schools who gleefully touch the 3-D versions and listen to the accompanying in-depth verbal narratives with their eyes closed.
“This is the first time these children have ever maybe even considered what it must be like to lose a sense or to be considered as someone else who can’t see,” Skolik said.
Skolik became hooked on art at age 12 after going to a Huntington store to buy an oil paint set. What she produced is a still-life fruit painting that’s included in her show.
The next few summers were spent hanging out in the back of the room in fine arts classes at Marshall University, even though she never registered or paid a dime. She even got to take home leftover paint and etching material.
“All the teachers kind of knew me: ‘Oh yeah, that girl showed up again,”’ Skolik said. “I’m just a little kid, but they let me stay.”
Eventually, she had to find a career path. Medicine won, with painting a distractingly close second.
She studied in college to become a doctor, but the artist bug eventually bit again. She took two years off from her medical work to paint before realizing in the late 1980s that there wasn’t enough human interaction — or money — in painting.
She finished an ophthalmology residency and retina fellowship and returned to Huntington, where she’s been in private practice for the past 15 years. Yet her office became her gallery.
One year, she recalled painting a family portrait for Valentine’s Day.
“In between patients I would run to the office, I’d paint the nose, go back and see two or three patients,” she said. “I’d go back and paint some ears. I’d say to the nurse, ‘go look at the nose. What do you think?”’
Some finished paintings made it onto the walls of her practice, and a few patients who happened to be on the museum’s board of directors suggested she show them off to a wider audience. The museum even changed its bylaws to make it happen.
Sixty paintings for the exhibit were chosen from among 750 at Skolik’s home.
During one meeting with museum officials, Skolik was told about the strong support system locally for people with little or no vision. Skolik then got an idea to use a local firm to make a 3-D computer image of a painting that people could touch. But that proved to be costly, so she decided to try it herself with clay — something she had never worked with.
“In the beginning it was a little difficult,” Skolik said. “I took my shoe off and I’m flattening it with my heel.”
Frustrated, Skolik turned to Kathleen Kneafsey, the museum’s visual artist in residence, who gave her a tutorial. Skolik then produced 13 12-by-12 pieces, carving images of paintings into the clay with raised and lowered edges.
These works, along with the 3-D computer image, Braille labels and bar codes that can be scanned by smartphones to hear audio narratives, were mounted next to the paintings at the museum.
Kneafsey, who has held clay sculpting classes for the visually impaired at the museum, said the 3-D idea was ideal.
“She’s bringing the two-dimensional painting into the three-dimensional realm,” Kneafsey said. “When they take the tours, especially with kids, they love to be able to touch things. Clay, for me, is all about touch. Not only can you see that someone’s hands were on it from the maker, but they can put their hands on it.”
Last month the New York City-based American Foundation for the Blind held its national board meeting in Huntington and toured the exhibit. Foundation President and CEO Carl R. Augusto was among those who touched the 3-D clay model that accompanied Skolik’s orchid painting “Joy of Love.”
Skolik recalled Augusto then turned to her and said, “Now I know what an orchid looks like.”