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Humor & Art: Blind Photographer Building Career Off Laughs

by Sylvia Gonzales, Berkeley, CA

photo of Pedro apparently driving a car while looking and pointing a cane out of the window to navigate
Right or Left

photo of Pedro attempting to read a piece of matzoh (for Jewish passover) as though it were braille
Who the Hell Wrote this Anyway?

A recent exhibit at the Berkeley Art Museum (BAM) entitled "Blind at the Museum" compelled visitors to reexamine their ideas of blindness and vision. The exhibit is a collection of work by artists who are visually impaired and/or blind. One Latino artist was featured - a photographer from Cuba - whose work is witty and quintessentially Latino.

Pedro Hidalgo came to the attention of the co-curators of the exhibit through his participation in the annual Insights art exhibit. Insights is co-sponsored by the Rose Resnik Lighthouse for the Blind and the San Francisco Arts Commission and displayed in the basement of San Francisco City Hall. Katherine Sherwood, a painter and UC Berkeley Art Department Faculty member was also a participant at Insights. She and Beth Dungan, the other co-curator of the BAM exhibit, invited him to participate in their project. The genesis of "Blind at the Museum" was born of the personal experience of Georgina Kleege, an adjunct English professor at UC Berkeley. Klegge went to a conference on blindness in the arts at which there were no blind or vision impaired people but her. So she brought the idea to her contacts at the Berkeley campus and this exhibit is the result.

A two-day conference was held at the BAM around the questions of how we perceive art, and how art can be made more accessible to disabled people. There were panels featuring artists, museum professionals and art critics. Pedro talked about how honored he felt to be included with other artists he admired and respected so much.

The artist as a young man

Pedro has a day job as a social worker for the City and County of San Francisco conducting workshops in job readiness skills. His preparation for his photography avocation began with the gift from his father of a Brownie camera when he was seven years old. His family came to the United States from Cuba when he was 11 to consult with a famed Spanish Ophthalmologist in New York City. He has myopia and macular degeneration.

They stayed and he attended the New York Institute for Education of the Blind. Pedro feels it was an excellent school. He continued his education at Syracuse University intending to become an actor. He performs in plays and in television soap operas (All My Children). His love of theatre is apparent in his photography where he sets scenes and stages situations to shoot. The pieces that illustrate this article are examples of this aspect of his art. At Syracuse, he majored in Latin American Studies, but his most influential course may have been Art Appreciation. His professor took the class to the New York Museum of Modern Art which exposed Pedro to the works of Picasso, Chagall and Rodin, much of it in the basement of New York Museum of Modern Art. He feels fortunate that, at that time, Picasso's body of work was on display in New York. Franco was a dictator in Picasso's home country of Spain and for political reasons Picasso would not allow his work to go home until after Franco's death.

Pedro's affinity for his Latino heritage was fed by travels throughout Latin America, including a recent trip to Cuba.

Exploring tactile dimensions

Pedro is currently preparing work for a show that will feature his interest in religious symbolism, and socio-political features of Latino culture. He is exploring how to make his work more tactile. One of the artists at the BAM exhibit used caulking to outline figures in his work, which seemed to give it another dimension. We were allowed to touch it, a novel experience in an art museum. Pedro says other artists at the panel discussion he participated in were also talking about their interest in making similar efforts.

A tour of the "Blind at the Museum" exhibit introduced Pedro's work as a "Reappropriation of Blind Jokes". Notice the scene-setting in both "Who the Hell Wrote This Anyway?" and "Right or Left?" Beth Dungan was most amused by the reversal of expectations in the colorful Oaxacan cane and bleached-out white car of Right or Left? Other artists at this show range from those who have recently become blind to those who have been blind since birth.

Pedro said photography lets him "stop the world" so he can see, at his leisure, what he might have missed looking at things through naked eyes. It gave me hope that what I miss when I travel with my daughters and grandkids, I can recapture later through pictures. Of course, that means I'll have to start taking them.