A Blind Artist with a Clear Vision
by Susan Satok
Atten-SHUN! Forwahd, MARCH! Hup two three FOAH! A typical morning at Camp Borden? No! The (British) “Sergeant Major” is artist Ronald Satok instructing a drama class for children with language disabilities. The class is designed to liberate the latent actor or actress in each of the children. I had the privilege of working with Ron in the classroom for a season, and of observing first-hand the transformation of shy, timid individuals into bold, commanding “Sergeant Majors” during drama workshops.
Thirteen years ago Ron Satok lost his sight. “It is interesting to think that now, 13 years later I should feel strong, powerful, happy - and most importantly, free. At the time I felt that God had abandoned me - here I was an artist - without sight! But when the lights went off outside, they came on inside. I feel a responsibility to those persons with disabilities who do not feel the freedom that I do. It is freedom that a person with a disability wants more than anything - freedom that has been taken away with the death of part of one’s body. Freedom to feed one’s self; to read one’s own mail; go for a walk. So many freedoms that persons who are not disabled take for granted. That incredible loss is something that many people do not understand. I, being a person with a disability, live it.”
Satok is used to struggle - he worked hard to make it in the international art world, and was close to achieving his goal when he lost his sight. “I had three interests: Art, Performance, and Athletics. I seemed able to shift form one mode to another very easily, but eventually I had to decide between them. I did not hesitate.” Even so music remained a very important part of Satok’s life - especially jazz. Many works were musically inspired: “The sad haunting feeling of Flamenco captivated me: the torrid dancing, the excitement, the chanting, the strong emotional appeal of the guitarist as he caresses the guitar.” Satok continues to be inspired by music, using phrases of lyrics (garnered from his singing sessions with Norman Amadio, the jazz pianist), in his drawings of dancers.
He is also a gifted speaker who has shared the lectern with the likes of Andy Warhol, Pearl S. Buck, and Senator Hugh Scott. His inspirational talks are highlighted with his own special brand of humour, spiced with a variety of dialects.
Little did I expect that a world would open up to me three years ago when I responded to an article in the “Sun” describing Satok’s school and requesting volunteers. The teachers and students who are involved in the school’s programs are as enthusiastic as he and his staff (teaching assistant Caroline Butson, myself, and several dedicated volunteers). Diane La Rochelle comments: “I would like to say that for myself, I am most pleased to see such improvements in my students in this short period of time. This school should be supported by the community as it serves its purpose to the fullest. Ron Satok has been an excellent role model as an educator, an artist and as a human being.” Diane, a teacher at French-speaking Sacre Coeur Elementary School was involved, along with her six students, in a pilot project at the Satok School of the Arts. The children are leading with a variety of disabilities, including autism, legal blindness, emotional and perceptual problems.
“I have developed programs in my school which energize people’s creativity. I feel that through our “Freedom Workshops” (a joyous blending of dance, mime, painting and drama - utilizing the three universal shapes of the yellow circle - spirit, the red triangle-body and the blue square - mind) persons with disabilities discover the rich potential lying dormant within them and their creative roots - consequently, they will begin a new and exciting process of growth. They realize that there is something to strive for - a feeling of “Hey - I’m okay” and often they escape the debilitating trend of persons who, with nothing to look forward to but the monthly welfare cheque, turn to drugs and alcohol.”
It is Satok’s hope that pilot projects such as the one Diane La Rochelle was involved in will serve as a model for established educational institutions. Satok asserts that “the goal is to change society’s perception of people with disabilities, by enriching the existing educational system, which emphasizes the rational side of people to the impoverishment of their creative side.”
Satok’s current project with St. Paul’s Elementary school which includes nine students and their teacher Mike Sheehan, will continue into another season only if Satok School For the Arts is supplied with additional funding.
Now as his wife and his assistant, I never know what each day will bring. He has taught me some very significant lessons-the most important is never give up, even when things seem bleak. “I can’t afford to be down, I must always believe in myself - and life.”
While in Japan, Satok discovered kumohada paper, a large-woven porous paper that inspired him to express himself in new ways. In London, he experimented by drawing with dark charcoal pencils that grazed the surface of the kumohada paper and gave it a tapestry-like quality seen in Conversations with Yoshiko, a seven-by-seven-foot charcoal, pastel and acrylic painting of abstract faces within a circle format.
Satok’s work has been showcased in museums and public spaces all over the world. During his sighted years, Satok was commissioned to create works such as Face-off, a vibrant hockey mural whose central portion, Detail, is on exhibit in the VIP entranceway of BMO Field at Exhibition Place in Toronto.
In his non-sighted years, he was commissioned to do One Force of Destiny, a 14-by-16-foot mural consisting of three-quarters of a million tesserae (Italian glass mosaics), on display at the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Opera Centre on Front Street. With the assistance of patients from the Donwood Institute, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre, and students of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, the mural was completed in eight months in 1988.
Satok attributes his love of the arts to his parents, who inspired him since he was a child. He studied visual arts at the Ontario College of Art.
After losing his eyesight, Satok founded the Satok School of the Arts, where he has taught children and adults who are blind or physically or developmentally challenged to discover their innermost emotions and transpose them into art.
Satok received an Order of Ontario Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994.
“When you have a calling, believe in the power of it and follow your dream,” he said.
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