‘It had to be perfect’: Deaf-blind artist creates meticulously detailed sculptures of Melbourne | art

II’ll let Joe Monteleone introduce himself to you, as he makes his way: “My name is Joe. I’m deaf and blind,” he signs. “I was born deaf, and in my thirties found out I had Usher syndrome, type 1. You can Usher google syndrome And what does that mean. Everyone with eyebrows has varying degrees of vision. I have tunnel vision during the day, but completely blind at night. I can’t see at all. “

He stops – that’s the end of a talk he made so clearly more than once – and lets out one hearty laugh. “But I guess you have a way you want to write the story?” sign.

I saw for the first time Monteleone art in a café in Albert Park; Seven bold, meticulously sculpted South Melbourne landmarks line the stripes hanging on the walls. I knew it was circular because that’s what he could see with his tunnel vision; Although blind, they were so meticulously detailed, and each carved over a period of 70 to 80 hours, that I immediately wanted to speak to an artist capable of such meticulous work. I’ve met Montillion a few times – he loves any opportunity for coffee – along with his interpreter, Marie, and art therapist, Victoria.

Montillion, 60, retired. He left public service in 2014 after 32 years in the business, because his eyesight had become so bad. He’s only been an artist for five years, after signing up for a Visual Arts degree for “something I do – it was good for my mental health because I was at home not doing much.” He now works 12 hours a day in his modest studio: a corner of his garage at his home in Lalor.

To relieve the pressure on his eyes, Montillion paints his lino pieces black.
To relieve the pressure on his eyes, Montillion paints his lino pieces black. Photography: Alana Holmberg / Okoli

He paints his Lino pieces black so he can more easily see where he’s carving, then sits at the architect’s table. He wears a special pair of glasses with a light attached to them, which improves his eyesight a bit, and a brace on his wrist, to keep him straight and prevent injury.

Monteleone received a grant from the Port Phillip Council for Southern Production Melbourne The works I loved so much, I spent about 60 hours making each one. He’s been working on another commission for the past seven months: the City of Melbourne awarded him a grant to produce a line at a famous Melbourne landmark. He chose Flinders Street Station, because the steps are a regular meeting point for deafblind people, with each other and with their guides.

Measuring 2.4 m by 1.8 m, it is his largest ever work; He is estimated to have spent 30 to 70 hours in each of the 12 squares, more than 800 hours in total. The station’s famous watch took four hours alone: ​​”I was very careful, but it had to be perfect.”

For his work at Flinders Street Station, Monteleone spent between 30 and 70 hours on each of the 12 squares.
For his work at Flinders Street Station, Monteleone spent between 30 and 70 hours on each of the 12 squares. Photography: Alana Holmberg / Okoli

and he. When we met, he had just finished: “When I showed Victoria, she was a little crying,” he signs. It’s a spitting image of the real thing. His Flinders Street station will be on display in Union Square, opposite the real station, in January.

“Only three issues will be sold,” he signs. “I’m not sure if the Guardian would like to buy one, but I’m putting it out!”

“Joe, you prankster,” Victoria laughs.

During Covid, he worked tirelessly on his Flinders Street linocut “since I was home-isolated. He was very tired – I’ve taken breaks, but mainly because I’m picky and like to get things right.”

Joe Monteleone in his studio in Lalor, Melbourne.
“I never thought this was something I could do”: Joe Monteleone in his studio in Lalor, Melbourne. Photography: Alana Holmberg / Okoli

Twelve hours of intense focus on the small dot he can see – does he feel alone during such hard work? “No, it helps me relax. At home, there’s not much I can do and I get frustrated, so this really helps calm me down. I enjoy working with my hands – I’m able to sense if I’ve made a mistake.”

Montillion was born in Sydney but moved to Melbourne in 1990 with his wife Maria, who is also deaf. “Don’t think I’m old-fashioned,” he signs, “but it was an arranged marriage because we’re both Italian.” “My cousin went on vacation to Europe, and on that trip he met my wife’s cousin, who was also on vacation, and they fell in love. They talked about how they both had deaf cousins, so when they got home they introduced us. We’ve been married since Nearly 30 years old.” They have two children in their twenties who both can hear.

When he first began studying art, he found that he did not like drawing and painting: “I can’t feel it, it’s for the eyes. Linocutting is more tactile.” One of his guides took him to the National Gallery of Victoria, to show him some outlines by M.C. Escher. “I just fell in love. I thought it was so amazing. The lighting wasn’t great in the gallery, so I used my phone’s flashlight to take a look. A security guard came over and said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I can’t see properly because it’s dark here.” He said, “You are not allowed to use the lights because they will damage the artwork.” I said, “But I can’t see it properly!” and we were fired! They gave us a refund, but my guide felt bad about the situation.

“But the art was beautiful. The next week, I asked my teacher about Linocuts. My teacher asked, ‘Would you like to try them?'”

Monteleone started small. “I was awful. It was really hard. But I was reminded, I’m there to study. I just had to perfect the movements. Over time, I started making bigger pieces and my confidence increased.”

Joe's favorite work is the three-shape print going down a steep slope (top, middle).  It is inspired by his experience walking the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea in 2019.
Joe’s favorite work is the three-shape print running down a steep slope (top center). It is inspired by his experience walking the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea in 2019. Photography: Alana Holmberg / Okoli

One of his first steps, a teary eye on a river, was an expression of his feelings about being deaf and blind. He said to me: “Don’t complain, but hear.” You can drive. You can listen to the radio. You can talk to anyone – you can just meet and chat with someone. You can watch TV. You can communicate with strangers. You can apply for any job and get paid. I can’t do that. I can’t hear the radio So I’m late in the news I can’t drive I can’t go and chat with someone When people talk to me I tell them I’m deaf and they’re still trying to talk to me Sometimes they write on a piece of paper and I can’t see it right So I’m having So many barriers. It’s so frustrating.”

“English is not my first language, Aslan is. Although I have guides and support staff, it is still limited – I might have four or five hours with them, and then after that, nothing. Today I had to take the train here On my own. He can be lonely. Sometimes it’s insecure. I can be very emotional about it.”

Did art open up a new line of communication for him? “Of course. I feel like people relate to him. They were amazed at it, asking me about my deafness and blindness. They never thought about my point of view, what I was seeing.”

Monteleone has completed four degrees and will graduate from Tafe with a diploma in visual arts soon: “I never thought this was something I could do.” Having fallen in love with art in his fifties, will he do it for the rest of his life? He signs, “Of course, yes,” and then lets out that wonderful laugh again. “What else would I do?”

He told me about a dream he had recently had: he is at his gallery on Union Square, and someone approaches him. They love his artwork at Flinders Street Station so much that they invite him to France to teach others how to make calligraphy. “And then I woke up. I would really like to learn professionally and really develop my skills. It is a dream, it is my wish.”