Through ‘tactile sensations’, Omaha nonprofit teaches pottery to visually impaired Nebraskans

Sept. 1, 2022, 5 a.m. ·

One Pair of Hands Guides Another As It Shapes Spinning Clay Into A Cylindrical Shape
Catherine Witt helps a student shape clay at the pottery wheel ( Photo by William Padmore, Nebraka Public Media News)

For a little over a month, groups of blind and visually impaired Nebraskans have been gathering in Omaha for pottery lessons. The goal of the nonprofit putting on the classes; to allow attendees to transcend their disabilities through an art form less reliant on vision.

Catherine Witt and Rachael Hellwinger sit at a pottery wheel
Catherine Witt and Rachael Hellwinger Sit at a pottery wheel, hands dirty with clay (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Last Saturday morning, 65-year-old Catherine Witt, dressed in a bright orange shirt and blue overalls is a blur as she scatters lumps of clay, paint and utensils across several tables in her large classroom. There are only a few minutes left before her first students arrive.

Witt has been teaching for over 45 years and is an experienced potter, even earning a nickname for her dedication.

“For many years, I would travel as the ‘Pottery Lady.’ I had a jeep and I would carry my pottery wheel with me everywhere I went,” Witt said.

While she has the training, she admits teaching visually impaired people is relatively new to her.

Witt is teaching for Outlook Enrichment, a nonprofit rehabilitation agency for blind and visually impaired people. Witt herself is blind in her right eye and has a cataract forming in her left. She said pottery provides an opportunity to create and appreciate art without the need for sight.

Outlook Enrichment Executive Director Paulette Monthei holds up a modiefied keyboard in one of Outlook Enrichment's classrooms
Outlook Enrichment Executive Director Paulette Monthei holds up a modiefied keyboard (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraksa Public Media News)

“They may not be able to see anybody else's work, they may not see their own work,” Witt said. “It's a pure sensory…experience.”

The classes take place at Enrichment’s headquarters in Omaha. Since the pandemic started, Enrichment’s service hours have ballooned dramatically, especially among adults and teens.

“Our cultural arts program used to be outside of the agency, and we brought it all in-house and where artists like Kathy really have expanded the types of things we can do,” Enrichment’s executive director, Paulette Monthei said.

Around 35,000 Nebraskans are blind and or visually impaired, according to the group’s estimate. Monthei said the pottery helps develop ‘tactile sensations’ which, in turn, help students in other ways.

“The creativity and the arts program helps somebody with learning how to label their home better using things like foam sheets, using magnets,” said Monthei. “Different things that can all come out of leisure-type activities like this.”

Outlook Enrichment was founded in 2019. It’s an offshoot of Outlook Nebraska, which employs visually impaired people to make janitorial products like toilet paper. The two operate out of the same building.

Mike Sloan Holds Up A Clay Face He Made in One Hand and a Photo Of The Painting The Face Is based On In The Other
Mike Sloan holds his creation in one hand and a photo of its inspiration in the other ( Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

As the pottery class starts, a group of six people of different ages attend to their crafts.

Student Rachael Hellwig said she lost her vision later in life. Before finding Enrichment, she described herself as being sad and lonely.

“Coming here has been the life persevere that I needed,” said Hellwinger. “Being around people that understand what you’re going through and they’ve been through similar things, they can empathize.”

Another student, Mike Sloan, has nystagmus, a condition where your eyes make repetitive and uncontrolled movements. With Witt’s help, he shapes clay on a small, electric pottery wheel – cracking a joke every now and again. He said as a visually impaired man, pottery appeals to him.

“You can touch it, you can mold it, you can play with it, and you can't make a mistake,” Sloan said. “And if you do, you squish it, and start all over.”

The youngest person in the group is 7-year-old Rueben McCombs, who attended the class with his dad, Cameron.

Cameron said they used to live in rural Texas where they had to drive up to four hours to attend events. The family moved close to Omaha to give his son access to a support structure.

Rueben McCombs and his dad, Cameron, look over a table of crafts
Rueben McCombs and his dad, Cameron, look over a table of crafts ( Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

“I think it's important to have access to friends who are also blind and are going through similar things. It helps to communicate and have a sense of community…I think everyone needs that,” Cameron said.

It’s that sense of community instructor Catherine Witt said she’s also found. The possibility she may lose her sight completely weighs on her. But she said her time with the organization and her students have given her strength, resources, and friendship.

“I'm not as scared… I think it's been kind of like a blessing in disguise for me.”

And she will have plenty of opportunities to remain involved. In September, Enrichment is planning an independent living workshop, adaptive Crossfit classes, and stand-up paddle boarding courses for teens.