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Blind artist helps blind student 'see' sculpture

March 06, 1997

By RICHARD F. BELISLE

Staff Writer

MARION, Pa. -- Six-year-old Crystal Bittinger caressed the smooth hardness of the polished stone bird and her face lit up.

Crystal, a blind Marion Elementary School first-grader, was "seeing" the sculpture through her fingers. But this bird was special. It was carved by Jim Holsomback, a blind sculptor from Philadelphia.

Holsomback was in her class Wednesday talking about his art.

He pulled pieces of his work from an old cardboard box -- a wooden doll, the bird carved from a single piece of stone, a whimsical carved marble shoe with a mouthpiece that he calls his "shoehorn."

Sarge, Holsomback's seeing-eye dog, fell asleep behind a desk while his master took over the class.

"Jim relates to children. He holds them captive. And he's so vulnerable. He lets them ask anything," said Scott Burkholder, an art teacher who brought Holsomback to the school with money from a special grant.

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"When I need to see what I'm working on, a piece of wood or stone, I touch it with my hands. I put my fingers at the end of my chisel so my fingers can see what I'm doing. Sometimes I break off a piece that's bigger than I wanted to break off and the piece gets ruined. Then I have to start all over. Sometimes pieces don't work out. They don't turn into something nice. It's a lot of work and it took a long time to learn.

"Just like you. You're in school and it will take you 12 years to learn what you'll need to get through."

When the class ended, Holsomback sat down next to Crystal and the two spoke quietly. She was tracing the bird sculpture with her finger tips.

"When I want to see something for the first time I use my whole hand, like this, then I go back over it with just my fingertips," he said.

Crystal said she wants to be a teacher when she grows up. "Maybe an art teacher," she said.

Holsomback graduated from broadcast school hoping to become a disc jockey, but he couldn't find a job. "Nobody would hire me because I was blind," he said.

He turned to art and taught himself to carve. His only formal training came at the Philadelphia Art Museum, where he took courses for blind students. He sells his work through commissions and shows.

Blindness runs in Holsomback's family. His mother, two sisters and several other relatives are blind, he said.

Crystal's mother, Wanda Bittinger, said her only other child, a son, Matthew, 22, like his young sister, has been blind since birth. He's a senior at Shippensburg University.

Matthew went through the public school system too.

"My children live with sighted people and play with sighted children. There's no reason why they can't go to school with sighted students," she said.

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