Andiamo! Colorado’s Italian American Community Newspaper 

February 2019 interview

Some of us have never had to rely on only four of our five senses and it really shows. Thanks to our sight, we're able to see the beauty of nature, remember people's faces, and even read Andiamo! every month. It's easy to take things for granted when seeing the world clearly is a part of life; but for those who cannot see, it's a different story. Although certain practices such as Braille and service animals have helped the blind and visually-impaired, accessibility is still lacking. Matt Gesualdi, the man behind Tact-Ed, an organization devoted to making the world available to the visually-impaired, is changing that.

Born in southern France to parents, David Scheininger and Constance Gesualdi, Matt grew up immersed in several different cultures. His father was a second­generation German-Jew and his mother a second-generation Italian. Matt and his older brother, David, grew up speaking German, Yiddish, a southern Italian dialect, and a southern French dialect. Matt and his family moved often due to his father's medical ambitions. After living in France for seven years, they moved to Quebec, Canada where Matt's father completed his first year of residency. Then, they moved to New Jersey, where his mother's family lived. "That was the first time I felt like I was going back to my roots” Matt says. They moved in with his grandmother, Rosina; living in an apartment above the carpet and tile store his grandfather had previously built and managed. 

Eventually, the Scheiningers decided they had enough of the cold and snow, prompting them to move to Jacksonville, Florida. Matt did not enjoy his time there. On the one hand, he was a "Yankee" living in the south and on the other hand, he had an accent, making him a "foreigner." He left Florida when he turned 25. A couple years later, Matt changed his last name to his mother's, Gesualdi. It felt like the right thing to do, since he had grown up with the Gesualdi family.

After a brief visit to Colorado, Matt decided to settle in Denver. In 1998, Matt and his family returned to France for a short trip. While touring a Parisian museum, he came across a model that showed what the building looked like in the Middle Ages. The model was especially unique however as people could touch it, something that was particularly helpful for the blind. Matt was used to creating models that people couldn't touch, but the display inspired him to create something similar for his final BA project.

Armed with a laser-cutter and a clear, but unfamiliar direction, Matt started building objects - incorporating special patterns and textures - to help the visually-impaired see through touch. He brought these objects to the Colorado Center for the Blind, so the students could test them. The process involved a lot of trial and error, but eventually, he finished his project. On presentation day, Matt's fellow classmates were getting slammed with negativity, but much to his own surprise, Matt's project was met with praise. "That was my first encouragement that this was the direction to go in."

For a time, Matt went back to building architectural models, but he finally returned to tactile modeling after 4 years. By then, he had access to a 3D printer. With the help of the students at Colorado Center for the Blind and a lot of patience, he built a model of Denver's, Daniels & Fisher Clock Tower. His passion had been renewed, but in the final months of his graduate studies a question arose: What’s the point? 

The question required some soul-searching, but Matt eventually decided on scale. While sighted people can simply look up and understand their size relative to a building, the blind and visually-impaired cannot and rely mainly on what they can feel or hear. That's when Matt figured out his niche. 

Since then, Matt has been commissioned to create pieces for the Denver Art Museum and the Denver Maker Faire. His biggest project to date is a collaborative effort called Mission to Nocterra, which debuted last year at the Denver Maker Faire. He describes it as a "puzzle room" wherein participants must find their way out of the room in total darkness. "It was a way to put seeing people and the blind on equal footing" he says of the highly-successful exhibit. Another notable design also debuted last year at the Denver Art Museum's, Rembrandt: Printer as Printmaker exhibit, providing a tactile element to an otherwise visual experience. "Most art is 2D and doesn't take the blind into account" Matt says. "But museums are becoming aware of accessibility and want to do more."

Aside from his innovations in tactile modeling, Matt is very connected with his Italian heritage. His great-grandparents, Michele Gesualdi and Pia Maria Concetta Chiappinelli both came to United States in the early l900’s from Bovino in Puglia, Italy and settled in New Jersey. Matt and his mother even made a trip to Bovino and were able to trace their lineage back to 1755. He currently resides in Denver with his wife of nearly 20 years, Tari. 

The world of tactile modeling has been an interesting and unpredictable experience. You can expect to see Mission to Nocterra at a symposium in May, but beyond that, who knows? "I don't know where this is going to go, as long as it goes somewhere” Matt says. He's been at it for 20 years, but it seems this is just the beginning. For a look at more of Matt's work, visit www.tact-ed. org and follow him on Facebook (@TactEd) and Twitter (@TactEdDenver).