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0000017c-60f7-de77-ad7e-f3f739cf0000Arts & More airs Fridays at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.Theme music: "Like A Beginner Again" by Dan Barry of Seas of Jupiter

Paul Ponchillia: One Man's Journey from Blindness to Inuit Stone Carving

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Robbie Feinberg
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If you walk through the halls of the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, there’s one exhibit you probably won’t see. It’s called the “Touch Art Exhibit”, with sculptures for those who are blind to drape their hands over, feel, and see in their mind. In one corner you’ll find Inuit-like carvings, made by Paul Ponchillia, a former academic who only started making these after he went blind decades ago. The sculptures here are only the latest stop in Ponchillia’s journey from biologist to researcher to stone carver. 

It started on a hunting trip in 1974. Ponchillia was out with a few friends, searching for partridge in Tennessee’s Smoky Mountains. But things went wrong, and by accident, he was shot in the face.

"It just went fwshhh," he says. "Basically, I felt like I got hit by a fly swatter. Because it hit me in the whole surface of my body all it once… I can still hear it hit the canvas of my clothing. I fell to the ground, but it's only because I finally realized what it was."

"In a matter of milliseconds, all of the bad things I ever saw or read about about blind people went through my face like a movie," he says. "Went through the front of my eyes just like a movie. I remember, certain people I'd seen who were blind. Who looked odd. Every negative thing you could think of and every stereotype that was negative about people who were blind just went through my head in milliseconds."

Ponchillia was bleeding all over, shot lodged in his eyes and throat, lying on the forest floor. Yet his actual survival was the last thing on his mind.

"This was before I ever really thought much about being hit," he says. "Only that I couldn't see. And a lot of it hit me in the throat. I didn't even think about that. I didn't even think about that."  

Ponchillia went to the hospital and mostly recovered -- except for his eyesight. But he kept denying the blindness, hoping, praying that one day his sight might return. He even remembers staying up and chopping wood to stay in shape, imagining he’d be able to return and play for his pickup basketball team.

"It’s funny, our denial is so strong that I thought maybe I’d be better in a week, so I’d make that first playoff game," Ponchillia tells.  "Honest!" 

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Credit Robbie Feinberg
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Paul Ponchillia carving a piece in his workshop

  It wasn’t until almost a year later, on a trip out to the Boundary Waters of Minnesota, that the denial began to fade. Without his sight, Ponchillia thought the trip was a bust. Paddling through the waters, maneuvering through the trees, he figured it’d be impossible. But after a push from his father, he relented. And not only could he hike and paddle, he raced through the forest, past stones and trees. If he could do this, he thought, maybe blindness wasn’t such a curse.

"It was that moment," Ponchillia says. "From then on, I didn't even think about it! From then on, it just was."

But years later, on a field trip as part of his work at Western Michigan University, everything changed again. They were at an art museum, looking at simple sculptures, of small, flat faced, long-necked people. They let Ponchillia touch them. And when his hands felt it, his brain connected the surfaces and textures and edges together. He could literally see them.

"To touch those stones, and to see that I could see this, see exactly what this stone looked like by using my hands, that's really the first time I thought 'Man, I could do this," he says.

And he did. He started sculpting stone, using Inuit art as his guide. Ponchillia went to the Arctic and met carvers. They taught him techniques. He kept teaching at Western, but on nights, weekends, and trips up North, Ponchillia transformed.

Ponchillia’s small artist shack in his backyard is covered in dust. Nearly every open surface in here is lined with a thin layer of it, accumulated from hundreds of hours of stone carving.

Ponchillia’s hands creep around the surface of the stone he’s working on, feeling the smooth edges that he’ll soon sand down into the shape of a fish. Once he digs in, a tiny particle cloud billows out and covers his carvings of salmon, whales and men that line the walls.

"When I come in, out of here, I have to blow myself off with the compressor cause it’s just a big mess," he laughs.

Ponchillia loves making this stuff, of course. But one of the best parts, he says, is when people, blind like him, hold a simple sculpture in their hands and really see it for the first time.

"I've seen people look at those pieces. Not mine, any piece," Ponchillia says. "And I can hear the same reaction that I've had."

Ponchillia’s fears – of the shame and staring – they’re still there. But now, the blindness, the art, the teaching, it’s all a part of him. It’s his identity. When you ask him how long that feeling of shame lasted, he'll tell you:

"I still have it! But to a very, very tiny degree. And so do you. Right? And if we say we don’t, we’re fooling ourselves."

That’s the lesson behind the art, Ponchillia says. To acknowledge those limitations, but find a new way beyond them at the same time. A few sculptures in a museum is a good start.

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