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Breaking visual barriers: APSU student’s tactile art movement makes artwork tangible

By: Ethan Steinquest May 20, 2024


Freshman studio art major Kayla Cross showcases some of her tactile artwork, which is designed for visually impaired people to experience through touch. | Photo by Madison Casey

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. - Kayla Cross, a freshman studio art major at Austin Peay State University, is on a mission to create a tactile art movement so visually impaired people can engage with the medium in a new way.

The project was inspired by Cross’s blind best friend, freshman education major Maliyah Green, who asked if she had any tactile paintings she could feel. This gave Cross a new perspective on how people experience art.

“I feel like blind people are left out in this world too often,” said Cross, who is legally blind but can see well enough to read standard print. “They don’t get to see the beauty in art unless it’s tactile or a sculpture, and I want to give them the sensation of what a visual person is seeing.”

Cross noted that tactile art is rare in galleries, so visually impaired people have to imagine most pieces rather than using touch to experience them firsthand.

“Tactile artwork makes me feel more included,” Green said. “I don’t like museums because there are so many artifacts you can’t touch, but with tactile artwork, you get to see the picture as everybody else does. It helps me create a visual perspective of what people are seeing.”


Freshman studio art major Kayla Cross, at left, and freshman education major Maliyah Green. | Contributed photo

In addition to being more inclusive, tactile artwork can strengthen the connections between people who experience it together.

“When I’m showing Maliyah some artwork, I’ll guide her hand through it, describe what it is, and talk about how the colors are changing,” she said. “What blind people take in is the sensation of feeling, and it’s really cool because they don’t get to experience these kinds of things that often. They have to use braille, but that’s not art - so getting to see and visualize art in their head is really impactful.”

Cross creates her tactile artwork using materials like hot glue, puffy paint and pipe cleaners. The compositions are influenced by pop and abstract art but feature simple geometric shapes that are easy to follow by touch.

“I’ve taken a lot of these and made a coloring book for Maliyah,” Cross said. “Because the designs are simple, she doesn’t need any supervision or help and can do these easily by herself. She likes to color, so she loves it.”

Green was especially excited to receive the book because coloring is one of her lifelong hobbies. She picked it up as a safe alternative to painting and because of the sensory experience it provides.

“I had a lot of coloring books as a child, but of course, I didn't feel the pictures, and I didn't know where the lines were,” she said. “To actually be able to feel it almost doesn’t seem real, but it’s an amazing experience, and I can’t thank Kayla enough.”


Freshman education major Maliyah Green colors in one of freshman studio art major Kayla Cross’s artworks. The simple design and tactile elements allow Green, who is blind, to imagine and color the picture easily. | Contributed photo

Green uses adaptive tools like scented markers to tell different colors apart, and tactile elements allow her to feel where the lines are and fully experience the pictures, similarly to how a person with vision would.

“I feel like coloring brought me a step closer to the art world and gave me a way to enjoy art safely and independently,” she said. “People have helped me paint in the past because I can’t do it on my own, but when I color there’s a sense of independence. I don’t have to ask anybody to schedule - I can just do it.”

Cross may produce more coloring books for visually impaired people, but she primarily wants to inspire other artists to contribute tactile works to galleries worldwide.

“There are a lot of specific art movements, but I’ve never seen one focused on tactile art, and in my opinion, it’s not represented,” she said. “I want to create artwork and influence people - but my main goal is to put art out there for blind people so that they’re not eliminated.”

Her commitment to inclusivity in art forms the core of Cross’s mission, breaking down barriers and challenging artists to expand their horizons.

“I’m grateful for Kayla, and I hope she inspires people who aren’t visually impaired to get involved in this kind of work,” Green said. “You don’t have to be visually impaired to make tactile art, and that’s a fact.”

The artist behind the movement: Kayla Cross’s creative journey

Although her tactile artwork is a recent project, Cross has been drawn to the art world since her childhood in Illinois.

“When I was growing up, I used to watch Bob Ross and do a lot of landscapes and architectural art,” she said. “But I didn’t think I’d be a [professional] artist until my junior year of high school, then magic happened.”

Cross was assigned a project to create a miniature art gallery and discovered the works of pop artists Keith Haring and Romero Britto, which motivated her to pursue her career.

“That project made me blossom into a whole different person and changed my imagination completely,” she said. “[Haring and Britto] truly brought me into the art world and inspired me to find my own style in pop or abstract art.”

Cross said Austin Peay's welcoming campus environment and accessibility made it the perfect place for her to pursue an art degree. She recently completed her first year of study and looks forward to the rest of her time as a Gov.

“It’s been going well, and I’ve had a lot of opportunities to get involved in activities on campus,” she said. “I’m in the art club and also participated in the art market where you can sign up and sell your work. I’m starting my first major art class next semester, and I’m excited about the possibility of being featured in a student exhibition in the future.”

After graduation, Cross plans to travel the country and explore artist-in-residence programs that will allow her to share her creations with wider audiences. To keep up with her artwork and professional journey, follow her on Instagram @krcross02.