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History at Their Fingertips

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 1997; Page D01

They are the faces of a distant, desperate time. A time of withered farms and shuttered factories, of shuffling bread lines and plaintive street corners. Captured in bronze, their expressions reveal both their plight and their resolve. They are the faces that Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped put back to work.

braille
Laurinda Lacey's fingers help her "see" miniature images in relief on a wall of the FDR Memorial.
(Dayna Smith/The Washington Post)
Gail Snider studies them in all their intricate detail -- a jutting cheekbone, hard-set mouth, startled gaze. Her hands search the topography of each. "The angle of that face," she remarks. "It's quite impressive. A very thin face, isn't it?"

Her fingers see everything; her eyes, nothing.

Of the thousands of people who may crowd daily into the FDR Memorial once it is dedicated this week, how many will spend the time to contemplate Robert Graham's bas-relief sculpture the way the artist intended -- the way Snider and other visually impaired visitors must do. Snider has been blind since childhood, her vision obliterated four decades ago by cataracts and then glaucoma. She sees through touch, which in many museums is far from welcomed.

But in this outdoor gallery, and especially in this room, designed to convey the sweep of social programs that President Roosevelt implemented more than half a century ago, touching is not only invited but encouraged.

Standing before Graham's six-foot-square panels, Snider explores the disembodied men and women that emerge randomly from the bronze. Some of their heads are nearly two inches tall, others smaller than a thimble. Most are inchoate portraits that may lack part of the forehead or offer only an ear and upsweep of hair. They are surprisingly intimate.

She chances upon the Braille characters that are the relief's most prominent captions. Slowly she reads, "PWA . . . PWAP. Is that right?" She again scans the quatrain of raised dots, decoding the name and birth year of a particular initiative. "Yes," she says. "Public . . . Works . . . of . . . Art . . . Program. And that is 1933."

This is how Graham would like everyone to approach his sculpture, which represents the alphabet soup of agencies that Roosevelt created to give people jobs and help pull the country out of the Great Depression. There was the CCC, the FERA, the FTP, the TVA, the NRC and many more. Indeed, the middle panel is a gallery in its own right with 36 framed scenes that show people working: a woman cleaning a factory grinding machine, a construction worker catching rivets, a dam laborer carrying a drill on his shoulder.

"It invites people to feel the faces, the hollows, the bumps," Graham said recently in a telephone interview from California, where he lives. "I hope that people do that. That's the kind of thing that makes a monument your own. . . . Great monuments throughout history have been rubbed shiny."

Like the other artists who have contributed to the memorial, Graham had 20 years to conceive and refine his vision. Opposite the panels are five free-standing columns that bear the sculpture's reverse impression.

Despite its often haunting visages, culled from a "memory bank" of snapshots from Roosevelt's era, the sculpture has been given a prosaic title, "Social Programs." Graham seems not to mind. He declares himself "very proud of my work."

"I really wanted the piece to stand on its visual and tactile weight as opposed to being a historic accomplishment or even a way, in the didactic sense, to teach people what these things were," he said. "That didn't seem important to me."

The Braille was long part of his plan, another way to emphasize the sculpture's invitation to touch. It also suggests hidden meaning, yet in reality it says nothing profound, merely listing a dozen or so of Roosevelt's New Deal agencies.

The faces are what attracts someone like Snider, who lives in Dupont Circle and works as public education coordinator at Volunteers for the Visually Handicapped in Silver Spring. She is right-handed, and so that is the hand that leads, its fingers cupped ever so gently, her left hand, its fingers straight, trailing as if for balance.

"It's a light touch that tells you more," she says. "If you think about velvet, you wouldn't pound on velvet to get the feel of the nap, would you? You'd touch it very lightly, and that's how you'd get the feel of it. Let it impress you."

The surface patina, already a muted mauve, turquoise and yellow, feels almost rough beneath her fingertips. She ranges over the panels, noting how the fullness of a mouth connotes a sour expression, how the prominence of an ear tells her its owner is masculine, how the artist has turned certain heads right and others left for balance and perhaps attitude.

"I think there are some faces that are set in certain ways that you know they're going to be all right. You know they're going to survive. They're not necessarily giving up," Snider says.

Still, "you tend to feel the enormity of the Depression from these."

She does not expect that her sighted friends would see the same things. When they look at a picture, they tend to look at its entirety and then pick out individual details. A blind person can't do that. "You've got to start with somewhere and gradually get to everywhere. You build a picture from a particular point," she says.

And at last she comes to one of the few faces broken by a smile. A big, open smile, she realizes with amazement. She feels the smile lines and teeth and lift of the cheeks.

"I wish I could see more of these," she says. "Even in hard times there are happy moments."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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