The Creative Partnership of Shirley and Irma

On Saturday, I went to the movies to see Life Itself, an unsparing documentary that exposes the complicated relationship between film critic Roger Ebert and his co-host Gene Siskel. For nearly two decades, they sparred publicly and passionately—issuing “thumbs up/thumbs down” movie reviews—and opened our minds to the fact that art is subjective.

On Sunday, I opened the Times to read “The End of ‘Genius’” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (NYT July 20, 2014), who opines that the idea of the lone genius is a myth. “The pair is the primary creative unit… at its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities….” The article references numerous creative pairs—Freud and Fliess, King and Abernathy, Picasso and Braque, Einstein and Besso, McCartney and Lennon. Each brought something the other didn’t have, tensions ensued, creativity blossomed.

On Monday, I received an email message that tactile artist Irma Goldberg had died. She was watching her two young grandchildren, making tea and Jell-O, and suddenly she was gone. Irma had been part of a creative team for 23 years, working alongside Shirley Keller, founder of Creative Adaptations for Learning. Irma was the creative director, Shirley the driving force behind its remarkable products.

“Her desk and my desk abutted each other for 23 years,” said Keller, over the phone. “We sat that way all day—sometimes not saying a word, sometimes we couldn’t stop talking. We were closer than a married couple.”

Shirley would have a brainstorm—and storm it was—and Irma would put pencil to paper and work out the details, sometimes going to the library to research an animal or object for weeks before she actually began to render the tactile drawing. The result of their collaboration was a rush of tactile books that surpassed anything that had come before, classics like Goodnight Moon to Touch, Humpty Dumpty and Other Touching Rhymes, Let’s Learn Shapes with Shapely-CAL, Touch and Learn Tactile Activities, Touch the Stars, and the endearing ABC Illustrated Flashcards.

Tactile image of two mittens from Good Night Moon to Touch

Tactile illustration by Irma Goldberg from Goodnight Moon to Touch

So today I am grieving the loss of a beautiful woman, outside and in, Irma Goldberg. I grieve as well for her tireless co-star, Shirley Keller, who pushed the limits of their remarkable union to the benefit of blind children and adults everywhere. When Shenk speaks of “the push and pull of love itself” as a creative force, he’s talking about Shirley & Irma: a pair of geniuses.

5 thoughts on “The Creative Partnership of Shirley and Irma

  1. I was so much inspired by her work, letting myself deeply dive into creating another “tactile” goodnight moon book in 3D, for children with visual impairments. I hope her first shoot inspires other who are working for people those who need special help all over the world.

  2. Irma’s work is inspirational! My students and I truly admire the creativity and thoughtfulness exhibited by the beautiful tactile pictures of Goodnight Moon! Her remarkable genius has definitely left a mark.

  3. This is very sad news. Irma was a cheerful, thoughtful tactile artist, who was dedicated to excellent touchable graphics for non-visual readers. She revised the tactile images in my book Touch the Stars and I had the wonderful opportunity to spend an entire day in the CAL studio with Shirley and Irma. I will miss Irma’s smile and love of life.

  4. This is a pair of very talented and giving ladies. Their tactile books and other learning materials provide stepping stones for many children who are braille readers as they grow and develop higher level skills of reading tactile graphics. Irma will be very missed. Shirley, my thoughts are with you. Lucia

  5. I am saddened to hear of Irma’s passing. I never had the good fortune to meet Irma but I have had the chance to talk with Shirley on a number of occasions. We never seem to have enough time to talk about all the exciting discoveries in our field. Clearly Shirley has always approached this as a wonderful journey and I am sure Irma was onboard all the way!

    I certainly admired their work. The mittens sum up their genius – a few perfect lines to express complex ideas. Their body of work will continue to inspire my work for the rest of my life. I would like to thank you both, Irma and Shirley for sharing your gifts so generously with me and the world.

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