As artists and as viewers of art, what loss are we most likely to consider catastrophic? For many, if not most, it's no longer being able to see. On occasion, I have wondered how I would manage to continue expressing my creativity were my vision to fade away or my hands not function. How would I thread a needle? How would I cut cloth? How would I arrange patterns, colors, and textures to complement each other? How would I know whether my overall composition works?
Although I don't recall ruminating on this during January, curiously, I received several communications that included internet links about blind artists, along with an editor's invitation to interview a blind photographer in my own community. So, of course, I decided to explore the topic and discover what it might teach me.
It all started when a painter friend emailed me a vimeo link about British painter Sargy Mann (1937-2015), with whom I wasn't familiar. At the age of 36, he was diagnosed with congenital myopia and cataracts and then with retinal detachments and ulcerated corneas. Despite multiple surgeries, by the time he turned 50, he was certifiably blind. Yet, just before he died last year, he asserted that, rather than stop him in his tracks, this condition actually made him see better, see more.
In the video, Mann is preparing for an upcoming TED talk. He says, "I wondered long and hard why the paintings I've made since being totally blind are as good as they are and, indeed, quite a lot of people think they're the best things I've ever done." He thought that perhaps previous to losing his sight, he'd been too timid and too influenced by the vision and experience of the master artists he revered. When he went out to choose a subject to paint, he was choosing one that Monet or Bonnard would have chosen, rather than his own. Once he became blind, that option was no longer available and, interestingly, it led him into a more personal world, one that was his own experience and own way of responding to it.
As a result, Mann didn't grieve or wallow in self-pity. Instead, he began to understand that perception involves more than just vision. According to an obituary in the The Guardian, he stated, “So much of it goes on in the head. Experience starts with touch." He simply kept working out how to paint while his brain found new ways to see the world. As he applied a pigment to canvas, he had a sensation of seeing the color. Unexpectedly, with blindness came breakthroughs: the freedom and courage to use color with more daring and expressiveness as well as to engage more intimately with his subject.
In an interview with the BBC, Mann explained, "Reasonably enough, people always want to know how I arrive at the color in my paintings when I can't see at all. It is worth mentioning here that most people, I think, dream in full and perfect color. I certainly do, and when one is asleep, one is perceptually blind, so the brain can do it--though God knows how. I can imagine color and color combinations pretty well and I wonder, is it so very different from a composer or arranger of music working on manuscript paper, thinking 'I would like the theme in flute and clarinet, against strings and French horns'? In the paintings I have made since losing all my sight...the last 10 years, I cover the whole canvas from my imaginings and my knowledge of my pigments and how they look in different combinations."
For Mann, drawing and painting became "almost like a sixth sense.” For Italian sculptor Giovanni Gonnelli, also known as il cieco da Gambassi or "the blindman from Gambassi" (1603–1664), touch and "inner" vision enabled him to sculpt again in clay after he went blind. He received praise and patronage from such important figures as the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Pope Urban VIII.
I came across many other artists who did/do not let impaired sight keep them from pursuing their creative passions. Between 1916 and 1926, French painter Claude Monet (1840-1926) managed to work on 12 canvases of his celebrated series The Water Lilies, even though he was nearly blind by 1923.
Today, there are organizations that support and exhibit artists who are visually challenged. For example, you can see some of their work on The Blind Artists Society website and read about international artists on another webpage. There's no way to discern that the art was created by a blind person.
What I've gleaned from viewing the artwork and learning the artists' stories is that fear of loss is a waste of time and energy. As creative individuals, they all found new ways of continuing to express themselves, often better than they had before. Any of us could do the same.
[In a future post, I'll share what I'm learning about how blind photographers are able to use light to keep making photographs.]
Questions and Comments:
What do you fear losing as an artist?
Do you know artists who have lost their sight or other functions? How did they deal with it? Do you think their artwork actually got better? If so, why?
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