Before any children came through the door, Kumpa Tawornprom made sure his artwork was securely fastened to the wall inside the children's area of Lighthouse of Pinellas.
Then he closed his eyes and used his hands to trace his newest creations — sea creatures made from polyurethane foam and covered with fiberglass and paint — to check for sharp edges and splinters.
"I wanted to run my hand over it one more time for safety. There's going to be lots of little hands touching this,'' said Tawornprom, 42.
Last week, the native of Korat, Thailand, who now works from a warehouse in Safety Harbor, completed a set of bas-relief sculptures — artwork that appears to pop out of a background surface — that are fastened to a wall inside the Lighthouse of Pinellas The nonprofit organization in Largo offers services to about 40,000 residents who are blind or visually impaired.
On Monday, Sofia Rosales, 5, and her little brother Juan Pablo, 4, were the first two children to see the artist's lifesized octopus, two sea horses and a loggerhead turtle hanging from an undersea mural.
"It's an octopus!'' shouted Juan Pablo after barrelling through the door for his after-school therapy session.
Her brother's enthusiasm caused Sofia to halt as she entered the center. After she pushed her glasses up from the tip of her nose, she joined her brother.
They walked back and forth in front of the wall, reaching out to feel the shapes and the textures while discussing underwater facts like just how many suction cups are on an eight-legged octopus.
According to Catherine France, an early interventionist at Lighthouse of Pinellas, Tawornprom's work, will help visually-impaired children receive life lessons through a fun, tactile experience. Not only will the kids learn more about the creatures that inhabit the sea floor, but they will learn more about navigating a room on their own.
"We want them to always be alert to changes around them, and the art helps with that because they will enjoy searching for the shapes found on the wall,'' France said.
Both siblings were diagnosed with a hereditary visual disorder in infancy, although they do have partial sight. For most of their lives, they have been clients at the Lighthouse of Pinellas, gaining skills to become more independent and able to advocate for themselves despite their disability.
About three months ago, Tawornprom was contacted by a family member of Florence Howell, a longtime supporter of Lighthouse who passed away in 2010. The Howell family wanted to make a donation in Florence Howell's name to complete the multidimensional mural, which was begun five years ago through Creative Arts Unlimited of Pinellas Park.
After the Howell family donated money for the materials, Tawornprom, who has made several 30-foot lizards for the Green Iguana restaurant chain as well as sculptures of a manatee and a mantaray for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, agreed to donate his time. It took about a month to complete the Lighthouse mural.
"The most important part to me was to create everything as it is in real life,'' said Tawornprom. "I didn't want to give the children false information through the art, because when they grow up, that's what they'd remember.''
Tawornprom said he frequently closed his eyes while working on this project. "It gave me more understanding of (a visually impaired child's) world, he said. "I came to realize just how much they use their sense of touch, so it was important to use different textures for them.''
For example, the octopus' head has "a rough and bumpy quality,'' he said. "Before brushing orange paint on top of the fiberglass, I mixed a powder in it. Then I used a dabbling technique with the paintbrush to create all the tiny bumps.''
For Liliana Rosales, mother of Sofia and Juan Pablo, the artwork is just one more benefit at a place that she has come to rely on.
"My children have grown and learned here, but I think the biggest thing they've gotten from Lighthouse is that through all the fun activities, they have gained self-confidence to do things on their own, which these two need very much.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4163.