News & Observer Interviews Kenn Kotara - CODEWORK

Braille Becomes Artist’s Motif

Published in: Arts




Courtesy of Kenn Kotara

Kenn Kotara's piece "and if, between the two" detail of Braille on paper. The show is currently at Flanders Gallery in Raleigh.



Artist Kenn Kotara has found a way to visualize one of his favorite books using the very thing blind people use to read.

The Asheville artist’s exhibit “and if, between the two” takes excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s book “Walden” and displays them in Braille. Kotara owns Kotara Studio in Asheville and has held many exhibitions in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

His Braille works are on display through April 20 at the Flanders Gallery in downtown Raleigh as part of its “Codework” exhibit. The exhibit looks at ways in which visual artists explore how they can understand and contribute to codes.

“I saw a lot of artists working this way lately and thought we really needed to put forward an exhibit where the artists are kind of talking more conceptually ... and also translating that into visual art,” said gallery owner Kelly Flanders McChesney.

Kotara, 52, recently talked to The News & Observer about the work and the inspiration behind it.

Q: What inspired this Braille exhibit?

If you look at my earlier work prior to this, it’s all grid-based and geometric-based. One day I came across on the Internet looking at Braille. ... So I’m thinking it’s a language, but it’s a language also that to me lines up. I immediately saw the grid. So I began to experiment with that.

I began to think about literature and literary sources that inspired me as a young boy. In “Walden,” it floored me how a man could walk away from society to live alone and then contemplate nature and human nature.

Q: How did you put the artwork together?

I’ve removed all the spacing between the words and the sentences and then just lined it up on a quarter-inch grid.

It’s paper, and it’s all hand-done. What I do is start out with a grid-based piece of paper, and I mark everything out. That paper is then attached to the backside of this, and so then I hammer it in from the reverse so that if a person knew to read it, you could. It does read from left to right top to bottom just as we westerners read.

Q: What about “Walden” spoke to you so powerfully?

Because of its impact on me as a (teenager). It led me to think about independence. It led me to think about self-esteem even solitude about being alone without being lonely, being able to be comfortable with myself.

“Walden” and Thoreau in general in the lexicon of American literature, this is the first truly American writing where Americans are beginning to write about America and what we have here during that époque. Some people may not get it but it’s like I’m trying to hold a secret over them. It also strikes me a bit about literacy and illiteracy, what we choose to read and how we choose it and take that in.

Q: Was the goal for a blind person to enjoy the art, or did you just think Braille was a cool way to express the book?

It’s about visual impairment. Some people are physically impaired while others are mentally impaired. I didn’t want anyone to be able to read it. That’s why I encased in Plexiglas because looking at all fairness, if a blind person could come by and read it but then a sighted person couldn’t read it, I began thinking about that impairment.

Even those of us who are sighted, we oftentimes handicapped ourselves by our own ideologies. We focus in on certain things. Sometimes I think we’re blinded by the possibilities of what is out there so I wanted that to be on equal footing for both a sighted person and a non-sighted person.