If someone mentions “plastic breasts” in conversation, you’re probably recalling a favorite Nip/Tuck episode. And if you were to meet a graphic artist, you’d probably only connect her with the visual arts. Lisa J. Murphy is just the kind of figure to defy these word associations. Her book, Tactile Mind, is a collection of mostly-nude bodies in costume. This is certainly not, however, the typical glossy-pictured coffee table book. Lisa meticulously sculpts her subjects onto thermoform plastic pages, rendering them (and their bits) fully-accessible to the vision-impaired. For some, her work is a milestone in artistic accessibility. For others, it’s porn for the blind. To these comments, Lisa shrugs; she isn’t one to worry too much about these sorts of categories.
What were your goals in creating Tactile Mind? Was your intent more artistic or erotic?
For me personally it was artistic. I see it as my art and as my work, but I have received feedback from people who find it erotic. Some say it’s porn. Art is subjective, so I’m not in a position to tell people otherwise, and I can’t discredit people’s interpretations.
I’m curious about the reactions that you receive from family and friends when they hear about your work, especially since so many media personalities have been using the p-word.
For the people that posed for me it was shock, absolute shock. I had been schlepping it around art galleries in Toronto for two years until the local newspaper did a story on it and it just exploded. We all had a good laugh about it all. My family has also been good about the attention, although they’ve experienced the shock too. Early on my mom called me in tears saying, “Porn! They’re calling it porn!” [laughs] So we started joking that the media was only calling it porn to make my mother cry.
Then you weren’t expecting this level of attention?
No, not at all. I just woke up one morning and it was a success. But it has started a dialogue internationally about the need for more numerous and more diverse books for the vision-impaired and the possibility of making things accessible beyond our television world. I enjoy listening to the debate for sure. I’m an artist, that’s what you try to do: make an impact with your vision. But I’ve had fun, too, and I’m having fun still.
Can you tell me about the physical processes that produce each book?
I use cardboard, string, and paper to create a costume for my subject. Then I take the photographs and blow them up to the size of the book page. If it’s too big, the thermoform plastic will start wrinkling. Then I’ll build it up with clay and other materials that don’t burn under extreme heat and put it in my home oven.
Your home oven!?
It really shouldn’t be in my home oven; everything ends up smelling like clay. My apartment looks like a meth lab; it’s constantly pluming smoke out the window.
Do your neighbors mind?
No, they get a kick out of it. One of my neighbors had friends in from Australia and they were like, “Oh my God, we heard about Tactile Mind and you live next door!”
What happens after you bake the page?
I’ll put it into my machine and put thermoform plastic over it. Then I take it to a proofreader. I have a few blind proofreaders who provide feedback, so when the image isn’t correct I can take it back and fix it. It takes a long time but it’s definitely worth it.
What sort of feedback do you receive?
When they’re touching it, the feedback that I get has to correlate with the photo that I’ve actually taken. One of the proofreaders wanted me to put wrists on the hands of the models. To him it felt like a hand with an arm hanging off of it. On my new project, Tactile Atelier Bookmark, the proofreader told me that he didn’t realize that the shoe style I used had even existed. I guess if you’re vision-impaired and no one told you, you wouldn’t realize the things exist. It was the same with the underwire bra, they had no idea.
So you’re doing this all by yourself, with no press or anything to support you?
Right. I have to make sure that the individual pages that I produce are right because the thermoform machine gets temperamental and burns kneecaps off and stuff. But I’ve been getting very positive feedback from vision-impaired buyers and it’s been bought by a lot of universities and institutions around the world. It’s pretty cool that an independent thing can get so far.
What other projects have you been working on recently?
Right now I’m making Tactile Atelier Bookmark, which is a smaller work—a bookmark—featuring women’s bodies and simple lingerie. Websites are already saying, “Oh, look, more porn for the blind,” but I’m not going to begrudge anyone their interpretation. I have called it a nudie book, but I think it’s a work of art first and foremost.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
I could ask them to buy books, but honestly I would say just to keep an open mind. People everywhere should think about equalizing life for people with disabilities just a little bit more. Life should be as equal for everyone as possible. We need to think a little bit more about people who have a handicap and extend the world we see as able-bodied individuals to those who can’t maneuver as easily. Be a little bit more aware.