Here’s one of those snippets of barroom conversation that make you wish you knew more about the participants.
It’s a Thursday or Friday after work at the Alchemist & Barrister in downtown Princeton. I’m at the bar waiting to meet a friend for a drink. The friend is caught up in traffic somewhere between Route 1 and Nassau Street and I’m minding my own business by not minding my own business — rather I’m eavesdropping on a conversation a few bar stools away.
A group is gathering for some sort of event that is beginning at around 6 p.m. A woman has flown in from California. One of the men may have come in from Pennsylvania. The man in the center of it all seems to be the host, and my first guess is that they are pharmaceutical types — I begin to tune out. But then I realize they are talking about an art opening, not a pharmaceutical meeting. Someone asks the host if a particular person has seen the work and if he likes it. “Yes,” the host responds, “and he says he likes it and I think he means it. You know that I can usually tell when someone is BS-ing me. And I don’t think he’s BS-ing.”
That comment catches my attention. Over the years I have heard a lot of people claiming to have a gift for detecting phonies. That boast itself can be phony — the master of BS can get caught up in it himself. But this man at the A&B has a certain resolve to his tone. I wish I could ask him what makes him so sure.
At that point it’s nearly 6 and the group has to go. As they walk out I realize that the host — the man leading the group to the art opening — is blind. Who is this and what’s this opening all about?
It takes me a few days to figure it all out. I scour the event listings for that day in U.S. 1 and realize that the reception is for an art show sponsored by Artistic Realization Technologies — A.R.T. — an organization that enables physically and neurologically impaired people to unleash their creative energies. The man has to be Tim Lefens, the founder of the organization who — ironically — has lost most of his own sight because of retinitis pigmentosa. And I wonder: Can it be that, as one faculty diminishes, other senses become more acute? Now that Lefens is not distracted by the visual cues presented by someone, might he be able to better “read” a person’s true feelings?
This Friday, November 26, Lefens and the artists of A.R.T. have another opening on Palmer Square. Given the opportunity to edit the story that appears on page 28 of this issue, I decide to pose my question to Lefens directly.
“Actually,” says Lefens, reached by phone in Belle Mead, “I’ve always thought that I had some ESP. I once asked my father — a pretty Teutonic kind of guy — who knew me pretty well, if he thought I had some ESP and he said yes. But I had that before my vision problems.”
The amplification of some senses as others fade away, says Lefens, “is not as radical as some people think. Sound could be an example. As you get close to a wall maybe you can hear sound bouncing off it, and I think you can feel the air pushing back as you get close.” In fact Lefens is working with a professor at the College of New Jersey, Jay Ross, on a helmet-like device that would do what bumpers on fancy cars do now: give off an alarm when the user approaches a wall or solid object, pretty much emulating what a bat can do in nature. “There are other versions out there now but they are way too complicated,” says Lefens.
Lefens relies on a computer program, Window-Eyes by GW Micro, to convert text messages into audio, and he used the program extensively in writing his book about A.R.T., “Flying Colors — The Story of a Remarkable Group of Artists and the Transcendent Power of Art.” In addition, the software enables him to surf the Internet. “All the text is available,” he says. “I’m able to run solo a lot of the time.”
And now, he says, he has a better appreciation for the spoken word. “I can see someone’s dialogue in type form, and as people talk I can sometimes see them go astray. Someone will say ‘I — erh — I loved your book,’ and I’ll say ‘You didn’t finish it, did you?’ And I’ll be right.”
But even for Lefens seeing through the welter of well meaning hypocrisy can be a challenge. “Sometimes I’ll project my own feelings when I’m out begging someone for support for A.R.T.,” he says. “I’ll project what I want” as opposed to what they are really offering. “That’s where you can get into trouble.”
Despite his own limited vision, Lefens is still cranking out his own art works. And his physically challenged clients are making their mark as well. This is a good time to visit Lefens and company in person at the gallery on Hulfish Street near Chambers.
But a word of advice: If he asks you want you think of a particular work of art, don’t tell him you like it unless you mean it.