Box Lunch Forum, 10/9/09
Warning, this is a very long post. It is a copy of the speech I gave at the box lunch forum at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, VA on 10/9/09. I was asked to speak (for 45 minutes) of my experience as a blind artist. I spoke and projected 100 images of my artwork.
Speech, Taubman Museum of Art, October 9, 2009
Thank you for coming. Thinking of myself as a “blind artist” has put me in touch with my own history; and what a long stange trip it's been. ;) Though I didn't begin doing visual artwork until I was in my 40's; I feel that eveything that came before contributed in some way. But I'l try and limit it to the most germaine. ;)
A word about the artwork here. Some are old, some new, all were done in the last 15 years. Some are quick sketches. Many are not finished. Some are finished. I rarely remember to sign my work. There are some nudes.
Since this is blind and low vision month and I'm speaking as a “blind artist” I'll tell you about my vision and my artwork. “Blind Artist” I think it sounds like an oxymoron, doesn't it? Blind musician sure but blind visual artist? I'm definitely not alone in attempting visual art with low vision. There have been blind or low vision artists in history and if you google “blind artist” you'll see many blind or low vision artists working today.
I am very grateful to have the vision I do have, even though I know it is far less than most people's. I think there is a profound difference between having no sight and having low vision, between never having had vision and having little vision.
I am “legally blind” I have been since birth. I am an albino; my low vision is caused by the albinism. About 1 in 17,000 people have albinism; it's caused by a recessive gene that is inherited from both parents.
I have multiple eye problems, a few are astigmatism, myopia, extreme farsightedness, nastagmus, lazy eye and more. I have an article here that details the sight problems associated with albinism if you are interested.
At my birth, my parents were told that I was blind. They soon realized I had some sight and took me to eye doctors. At 18 months I started wearing thick, dark glasses. I had severely crossed eyes. At 8, I had an operation to improve my crossed eyes.
I use my left eye primarily, that's my better eye. My left eye is 20/200, my right eye is 20/400. So with my good eye, I see at 2' what a person with 20/20 vision sees at 20'.
My parents were told to raise me as a sighted child. That was OK in that I learned to get by, but my low vision did handicap me. It was confusing for me and for others. No one could tell what I might see and what I might not see. For many years I tried to “pass” as sighted. I wanted to be normal, like the other kids.
But I wasn't like the other kids, I looked very different, I didn't see well and they tormented me a lot. There are many social and emotional issues involved with looking different, with having albinism. The uniqueness of albinism often leads to separateness and isolation. Social attitudes towards albinos are similar to those experienced by other disability and minority groups. People, especially kids, will often make unwanted and unkind comments about different appearance. If your are curious about this I have an article here that speaks to the social and emotional aspects of albinism.
By and way, the TV show “20/20” just did an interesting show on people living with albinism. I saw it online.
Albinism has colored much of my life. Between my mother's discouragement of artistic pursuits and the energy it took just to try and fit in, it took me years to allow myself to do art. I've lived much of my life alone and I think the solitude helped to foster my artistic pursuits.
Only in the last few years have I been able to tell people that I have albinism, and that I'm legally blind. I was fiercely independent and have had to learn to ask for help when needed.
I've learned to cope with my low vision pretty well. I love the computer's ability to enlarge and I have a large screen monitor. I'm so grateful that I live in the information age and have a computer and Internet access. I use a special magnifying glasses for reading and I use binoculars for looking at things outside.
I don't drive. I have no depth perception; that really makes driving difficult. I also can't tell the difference between a shadow and a hole, nor can I read street signs. It's very inconvenient since I live in the country but it's OK. I'm grateful for friends who are willing to transport me. Some of my artist friends drove me here today.
Anyone who has seen me read has an idea of how blind I am. I printed these notes in a size I can read without putting the paper to my face. I normally read with the paper a few inches from my face. I am grateful that I can see to read.
My mother had a Calvinist upbringing, bless her heart, and she never encouraged any artistic pursuit. Artists to her were lowlife, the demi-monde and usually impoverished, not an acceptable career choice. However my father was artistic; he painted, he was a poet, a musician, a real bon vivant. I'm not sure how those two got together. It was wartime, stranger things happened. I certainly received mixed messages from them about the artist's life.
I don't remember when my appreciation for art began. It seems I've always had a love of all the art forms. I'm fascinated by what artists show us about our world. Art has shown me things I wouldn't otherwise see. For instance, with my low vision I don't see birds except as a dark blur. But because I've seen birds depicted in art I know what they look like.
But art can convey so much more. I love that art evokes an emotional response in the viewer. It focuses our attention, it moves the eye and the spirit. It shows more than what is seen on the surface. It can simplify a subject, it can elaborate on a theme, it can describe the microcosm, or the macrocosm.
Art shows us gesture and expression, it expresses a moment in time. Art has always interested and inspired me and allowed me to “see” despite my poor vision.
I was born and raised in Washington DC and was exposed to many of the arts. We went to concerts, plays, museums, parks, galleries.... My father's office was in the Capital building and I was allowed to explore downtown DC. I spent many, many happy hours looking at the art in our public buildings, the Capital, the Library of Congress, Foldgers Library, The Smithsonian, in all it's many permutations, the National Gallery of Art, the Corcoran, the Freer, the Frick, the National Portrait Gallery, Dunbarton Oaks, the parks, the list goes on and on. DC is a treasure trove of free art. I'm happy to have grown up there. Two of my earliest jobs were at the National Gallery of Art, and at the Corcoran.
I went to college although my low vision always made classes difficult. I studied dance and art history at U of MD. I envied the studio artists but I was too shy and intimidated to take studio art classes. I assumed that my limited vision prohibited me from being a visual artist. I took my artistic expression in dance.
I lived in DC and briefly in NYC. I was in the SF bay area in the late sixties. There was so much creativity happening there, it was exciting. I saw many artists, young and old working in many different media. I also felt very accepted there for the first time in my life. I had been born a freak of nature and had suffered from that. But being a freak in San Francisco in the late sixties was accepted as normal. It was the first time I considered I could do artwork too...but...
Then I got married, I had children, I moved to the country and practiced homesteading and country crafts. I made quilts, dolls, baskets, gardens. I raised sheep, sheared them, spun and dyed the wool and other fibers. I wove, knitted and crocheted. I feel that many of those crafts taught me a lot about art.
It wasn't until my children were grown and had left home that I started practicing visual art. I did have experience with being in the right brain, artistic mode through music, dance, meditation and practicing crafts. These gave me experience with working with composition, form, color, line, positive and negative space, etc.
I made my living as a tie-dye artist for fifteen years, it taught me a lot about color.
I did some silk painting, abstracts and landscapes mostly. I found silk painting an extremely demanding medium technically. The technical difficulty was off putting but the paintings were beautiful and I loved working with silk.
I've had very little formal art training. I imagine my approach to painting is similar to many artists; though every artist has their own way or seeing and creating.
We all know that there is a difference between looking and seeing. It's what you do with what you have. I've always felt that my visual limitations have forced me to be very observant, to pay attention to what visual cues I was getting, and to use all my other senses.
While I have difficulty seeing line or detail, I do have very good color sense and good light and dark perception. Much can be indicated without great detail. I have no depth perception because I primarily use my left eye. For me photographs have as much depth as reality.
I started sketching in earnest in the 80s, I enjoyed it very much. People were always my favorite subject. I think partly because drawing someone gives me license to look at them.
Having low vision I don't see many of the facial expressions that give us information about people. I know they exist. I see expression up close, in photography, and in art, but my inability to read them is a social handicap. However, drawing people is an opportunity to stare with impunity. :)
Soon after I began drawing on my own, I joined the Floyd Figures Art Group and I have been drawing with them almost every week since. We do a life drawing session every Wednesday afternoon, in Floyd.
We draw together in the Wintersun performance hall: we share the cost of the model and the room. We have drawn hundreds of people over the years. The models choose to wear clothing, or a costume or to be nude, however they are comfortable. The sessions are open to all. If you think you might like to draw with us, please take our card.
I do some abstracts, landscapes and stilllifes but people are endlessly fascinating and inspiring to me. The human form is an endlessly varied landscape. We can use the same words to describe a landscape or a person's body; bald, lush, bare, sparse, softened, bony, curvaceous, simple, complex, familiar and exotic, the spirit's home.
In these life drawing sessions I usually work in charcoal, pastels and pencils on colored paper. I try to “Plan and Work and Work the Plan” I begin by looking for what will make a good composition; the moving and repeating lines, the humanity and the expression of the face or the pose, the drape of the clothes, the gesture, what the pose may suggest, what might interest the viewer.
I also try for a composition that would make the piece work if it were purely abstract. The composition viewed upside down or sideways would still be interesting.
I think about what color of paper and pastels will work with the mood of the pose, or the coloring of the model or costume.
I plot out, measure, and design the page. I spend time getting the composition in my head and placed on the page. This is somewhat left brained work, plotting and measuring, and I think it's good to give my left brain something to do so it will be occupied and get out of the way of my right brain.
Once I've got the composition mapped out, I try to get a quick gesture down with the most significant lines placed.. Around this point my left brain stops chattering and wordlessness takes over. I enter the right brained, meditative, intuitive state.
As I work I try to retain the freshness of the original gesture drawing. I put down the broad strokes first, the darkest darks and lightest lights, then refine the work with gradations of color and tone. I use the color of the paper, usually in the mid tones.
As I work I find the lines in stages. I use what I know of the figure, combined with what I'm seeing of this persons uniqueness, with the foreshortening and the gesture. I try to draw what I see as opposed to any preconceived notion of how it should be.
I work the whole piece at once, keeping the overall gesture and the abstract quality. I allow myself to get lost in the work. Details around the focal point are usually left until near the end of the session.
As I work I imagine what might enhance the pose, what the context and background may be.
Sometimes I spend much of the time looking at the model, while my hand works “automatically” only glancing at the picture occasionally to make sure I'm in the correct place. By necessity, I have to work close to my paper but I'll often move back to get the overall picture. No matter what the lighting on the subject, I need stong light on the paper to see what I'm doing.
I call my method “finger painting” because I hold the pastel or pencil so that the end of the pastel is at my fingertips. I think my low vision is directly responsible for my use of my fingertips as much as possible. The brush feels like a distraction to me, I have to spend too much energy seeing where the end of the brush is, but I can feel where the ends of my fingers are. I'll often layer on colors and blend them, push them around, and soften edges with my fingertips. My fingertips are a direct sensitive extension of my eyes and brain.
I think of artwork as a problem solving and decision making process. Is that shape round or triangular? What are the colors in the shadows? What do I want to leave out or emphasize? It's a place where I have some control and there is no “wrong” outcome.
I love the process of creating, the satisfaction of problem solving, the challenges and happy surprises. In the drawing sessions, I enter that lovely right brained state of mind and the three hours pass quickly.
The piece may end up being what I had envisioned it to be or it may be not at all similar to it's beginning. Usually it's somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Sometimes it's a happy surprise, occasionally a complete failure. Sometimes I erase whole sections or start over completely. I've learned it's good to just erase what I know is wrong, and take another shot at it. I'll be happier about it eventually.
Every piece of work is an exercise... flexing those art muscles. The outcome is secondary to the process. It's being in the creative mode that brings me back week after week.
I've learned a lot from watching other artists work, their process, their choices, their technique. During the model's breaks, I walk around and look at the other artists work. Occasionally someone will ask for or offer constructive criticism.
I often take digital photographs of my work as it progresses. The photos give me a different perspective. They teach me, in hindsight, about my work, it's strengths and weaknesses. I can see if and where I lost the spontaneity of the first gesture sketch I can see how I developed the piece, and what works and what doesn't.
At the end of our life drawing sessions, we put up our drawings for a few minutes of gentle critique. It's interesting to see what we each took from the model and how we interpreted what we saw. As a group, the Floyd Figures Art Goup, we have mounted several exhibits of our work.
I take my artwork home from the sessions and put them up on my walls. Favorites make themselves known to me and visitors comment on them.
Over time, looking at them, I figure out how I might finish them, what I can correct, or elaborate on, and what backgrounds might add to the compositions.
Occasionally I finish and frame pieces for showing. I've shown my figure work mostly in Floyd.
So while it may seem incongruous for a person of low vision to practice visual art, and I didn't make the attempt for a long time, I'm very glad that I have. I know that my low vision limits me but I don't think that should stop me from trying. Doing art has enriched my life enormously and I hope others have gotten something from my work.
Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here. I'm happy to take your questions.