KINGSTON, R.I. -- December 18, 2003 -- Tony Monahan is a multidimensional person. He's not blind, yet has begun to see with his fingers. He's not an artist, yet has one painting on display at a school department building in Berkley. He's not an adventurer, yet has traveled extensively in search of the sun. And while he's not a wealthy man, he has given a touching gift to those who cannot see.
Monahan, the coordinator of student teaching for physical education majors at the University of Rhode Island and a URI-RIC Education Ph.D. student himself, says all of these endeavors are centered within him as a teacher.
Recently Monahan spoke and was honored as he unveiled his three-dimensional work, 81 Squares In Braille, and donated it to the Helen Keller National Center for Deaf-Blind Youths and Adults in Sands Point, N.Y. The piece depicts 81 3-D turtles
"Helen Keller was a great influence in my life both as a teacher and as a person who overcame great adversity," said Monahan, 44, who recently recovered from an episode of Dermatomyositus, a very rare disease of the immune system. "I started this piece in the hospital. It took 20 months and through its creation, I recovered the use of my fingers."
As translators signed and communicated his words to students and teachers at the center during the unveiling, Monahan shared his favorite words from Helen Keller, "One must never creep when one has an impulse to soar," and explained how completion of each of the 81 turtles comprised in the work moved him one step beyond.
To those who can see, from afar the 31-1/2 by 13-1/2-inch work, which comprises 10,000 individual pieces of paper in 10 separate layers, is an optical illusion its 81, 2-1/2-inch black and white squares look skewed and form an undulating pattern. As one gets closer to the work it gradually becomes clear that each square contains a three-dimensional tortoise made of hundreds of individual pieces of paper.
While all applauded as the work was displayed, Monahan said that later seeing the faces of the students touching the squares, was the only ovation needed.
"The students lit up when they explored the piece. Everyone wanted to talk, to touch. One student who was deaf and blind described the entire piece by touch, exactly the way I had 'seen' it while I was cutting each piece of paper in the hospital," Monahan said.
While this and other paper work, such as his piece "Fibbonacci's Procession" (coveted by many a mathematician), fueled Monahan's recuperation, it was a vision six years ago that first put a paintbrush into the then-teacher's hand.
The vision was that of a turtle, Dermochelys Coriacea (submerged). Monahan worked on the painting while teaching adapted physical education for specialstudents in grades 6-12 through the Berkley (Calif.) School Department.
The outcome, a 38-inch by 72-inch acrylic painting on canvas, Submerged, that Monahan donated in 2001 and still hangs in Sprowl Hall, a Berkley Administration Building.
Known for working on several different projects at one time, Monahan also began his research for Sun 365, a celebration of the sun. From 1999 through 2000, he scoured books in libraries nationwide and traveled around the world for the language used to describe the ubiquitous sun -- 365 words for sun in as many different languages, some of which are fast-disappearing.
With the words and vision in hand Monahan teamed with a graphic artist, Lily Quach, who was intrigued by the use of the sun as a universal symbol with languages representing our diversity. Designed as a poster that he hopes to have printed for libraries around the world, this gift involves more than just his paint and pieces of paper at home.
"Unfortunately, this one's on the shelf until we can get support to produce it for all," Monahan said.
So what does this art and these gifts have to do with Monahan's role as a teacher?
"I use my art work in education, getting students to understand that as teachers, they need to see things and interpret through the eyes of their students.
"The turtle at Berkley is merely an abstract painting to many, but it is clearly a turtle to those who have studied sea life," Monahan explained. "To many who see, 81 squares is only a black and white patterned piece; to those who see closer and through their fingers, it's something completely different. To a student or an art browser, Fibonnacci's Procession is merely a cute picture of turtles moving along the road. But to the mathematician it's a visual display of a formula.
"It's all in how we look at things, and as teachers we need to know and understand how our students look at things. Student teachers have gone through years of training and have learned numerous teaching techniques and requirements," he said. "I try to include these lessons about art and vision so they'll know to look inside."