Blind Potter Michelle Friedman Breaks Barriers

A rickety set of wooden stairs leads to the basement of the Evanston Art Center on Sheridan Road, where easy laughter and loud chatter fill the ceramics studio. It’s Tuesday morning, and “Intermediate/ Advanced Ceramics,” led by David Todd Trost, is in full swing. Many of the 10 or so students present have been in ceramics classes together and friends for the last nine years.

“Truthfully we all know a lot about each other’s lives,” says student Michelle Friedman. “We have a nice camaraderie.”

From Bill Flaherty, 88, a priest at Faith Hope and Charity to Friedman, 57, who spent years involved with her synagogue in Skokie, the small group is a melting pot of backgrounds, ages and faiths drawn to this basement room by their common love for pottery.

Mother of three and grandmother of five, Friedman is one of the self-proclaimed louder, more outspoken individuals in the group. The Art Center is a place where she says she feels completely accepted. And for Friedman, this has not always been the case.

For the last 22 years, Friedman has been completely blind, and she has been visually impaired since she was eight years old. She says sometimes her disability makes people uncomfortable or unsure of how to behave around her.

Not here.

“There [are] no boundaries in this group and that’s the way I like it,” Friedman says.

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“What do you say, David?” pipes in Betsey Fiddler, a classmate who also happens to be Friedman’s neighbor. “That Dana is the ‘seeing-eye’ potter?”

Everyone laughs warmly.

“I believe it’s important to laugh at myself and this group is really good at helping me laugh at myself,” Friedman says.

Friedman first tried making ceramics when a good friend of hers dragged her to the EAC and insisted this was something they could do together. Before these classes, Friedman says she hadn’t done anything creative in her life.

Some of her initial concerns were that she wouldn’t be able to see what the teacher was doing or find her way around, and she didn’t want to accidentally destroy anyone’s work.

“So I had this class and the first teacher was a little…Dana, what would you say?” asks Friedman.

“Oh, overwhelmed,” adds Dana Shearin.

Petite in stature and gentle in manner, Shearin now serves as Friedman’s aid during ceramics class. Shearin was Friedman’s second teacher at the Art Center, and the two ended up working extremely well together. When Shearin decided to leave her teaching position, the Art Center asked if she would stay on as Friedman’s personal aid. The ladies have been working together now for nearly 8 years.

The Art Center pays Shearin for her assistance, for which Friedman says she is so grateful.

“They have made it very easy for me to take classes,” Friedman says. “And believe me, I’m not an artist so my stuff is not artist quality, but they’ve been very good about making it accessible to me by giving me Dana.”

Her statement about “not being an artist” seems unbelievable when looking at the delicate tea set she is making for her granddaughters; her intricate platter ready to be fired on the kiln or her set of recently glazed soft blue mugs. They appear far from amateur.

“But I have gotten better. Isn’t that right, Dana?” Friedman chuckles.

When asked how she would describe the process of making her ceramics without the ability to see them, Friedman says she feels very in control until it’s time for her pieces to be glazed.

“In making my pieces I can feel what’s happening and I can create an image in my head what’s happening with the piece itself,” she says. “In the process of glazing it I lose control.”

The glazing part of the ceramics process is when the artist must choose the piece’s specific colors, dipping them into certain buckets of glaze, brushing them or sponging them for certain amounts of time.

“I had the advantage of having had sight, so if Dana tells me it’s dark blue, I can create an image of a dark blue, even though it’s not necessarily the correct dark blue,” Friedman says.

Instead of selling her pieces she often gives them away to family, friends and donates them to various fundraisers.

Friedman spent years involved with charitable organizations, her synagogue, and even served as the president of her children’s school board for a time. She says that being as active as she is, she gets to show the world that a disabled person is as capable as anyone else.

Another way she gets to show the world is through the children’s book she wrote,“Close Your Eyes,” which she brings into grammar schools as a vehicle to discuss disability awareness. The book tells the story of a young blind girl as she experiences the world. Friedman wrote the book four years ago, and self-published it in 2013.

“I wrote the book for two reasons,” Friedman says. “I wanted to have a way to get into schools and discuss disability awareness […] for able-bodied children. But I also wanted to have a book for blind children and disabled children where the main character was blind. You don’t see that very often.”

Friedman hopes to focus on disability awareness full time but has no plans to slow down her ceramics classes.

She and her EAC classmates share their feelings of excitement for the center’s big move to Central Street in May. At the new center, the ceramics studio will be on the ground floor rather than in the basement and there will be an elevator, not just stairs. She says the interesting part of the move for her will be re-acclimating to the new space, but she is happy it will be more accessible.

“People know that Tuesday mornings are sacrosanct for me,” Friedman says. “It’s my ceramics time and I can only do it because of Dana and because of the Evanston Art Center.”

You can purchase “Close Your Eyes” here.