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The Artist with an Inner Vision
by Mimi Winer
At the age of 32, my budding career as a picture book illustrator came to a halt. Two weeks after a brief illness, I lost part of my perfect sight. I could drive and read, but my vision was somewhat distorted, and I did not see colors properly. The shock to my psyche was so great that I could not bring myself to create paintings. No doubt my permanent ownership of a "perfectionist" personality did little to alleviate this situation.
Although I did not want to paint anymore, I was curious to know if there were artists with sight loss out there, and if so, how they went about doing their work. I decided to explore the subject in detail. Perhaps taking on this project might help me find a way to pick up my brushes again.
By coincidence, in 1962, (at the time when I was beginning to lose my sight), I heard of a new book called THE WORLD THROUGH BLUNTED SIGHT, written by an art critic, Patrick Trevor-Roper. I rushed to the library, brought home this copiously illustrated treasure, and began my quest to find out all I could on the subject of painting with sight loss. The book discusses the works of famous artists, from El Greco to Monet. The author tells us that the masters shared abnormal sight of varying degrees, (including legal blindness), but he does not mention any artists who had no sight at all.
As the years passed, I read several articles about legally blind artists in DIALOGUE and other publications, and I even met a few of these artists along the way. It was interesting to observe how many different methods and techniques they used to create their paintings.
By now, I had recognized that one could pursue a painting career with faulty eyes, but I was still sure that this path was not for me. One day, Shirley, my sister-in-law, tried to convince me to give it a last ditch try. She said, "Mimi, if my friend, Harriet, who is totally blind can paint and even sell her work, so can you." My ears pricked up. "You really know a totally blind working artist?" Of course I had to meet her.
In those days, my sister-in-law spent her summers at Martha's Vineyard, an island off of Cape Cod. During our short ferry ride to the island, she began telling me more about her blind artist friend.
"Before Harriet lost her sight from glaucoma, she taught painting at Smith College. After she became totally blind, she retired to the Vineyard." Shirley's voice dropped to a whisper. "The pressure from the glaucoma got so bad; Harriet had to have both eyes removed." Shirley paused for a moment. "You would never know she can't see. Not only does she have incredible eye contact, but her artificial eyes look absolutely real."
My sister-in-law's description of the blind artist was correct. Harriet, who had graciously agreed to meet with me, gazed into my eyes as if she could really see. She could hardly wait to show me her "blind" painting techniques.
The artist's studio, situated on a grassy moor facing Vineyard Sound, took up the entire living room space of her four-room cottage. The sunlight that poured in from a ceiling to floor window revealed an enormous wooden table covered with art supplies.
Without wasting any time, Harriet picked up a large piece of heavy-duty watercolor paper and tacked it firmly onto the table with pushpins in each corner. Then, she took a wide brush and wet the paper with water from a bowl nearby. On a flat tray to her left, over-sized tubes of watercolors, in a variety of hues, lay neatly identified on individually brailled cards. While the paper was still wet, Harriet unscrewed a tube of azure blue paint, put some on her brush, and swished it around. Next, she blended in a wash of light green and then violet. The colors ran together in flowing patterns of translucent light.
When the background wash had dried, the artist turned to another area of her table. She gently searched for some small hunks of clay and placed three or four of them on different parts of her canvass. "I use the pieces of clay as temporary guidelines or markers," she explained.
When Harriet lifted her hands from the table, I noticed an array of 30 or 40 oil color sticks on her right. The oil crayons with braille labels standing upright in a specially designed slotted wooden box looked like ranks of colorful little soldiers. She took a cobalt blue oil stick from the box and, using the clay markers for placement, deftly overlaid the watercolor wash with the outline of a luminescent vase. She then removed the clay markers and pressed them onto new areas on the painting. Again, she chose specific vibrant oils and expertly finished her work. I stared in awe. The shimmering vase was now filled with glowing native wild flowers, which looked as if they had been plucked from the field just outside her window.
With a sigh of released tension, Harriet grabbed her "signing" marker and wrote what I assumed was her name in the lower right corner of the painting. I bent down for a closer look. "Harriet!" I said. "That's not your name. What are you doing?"
Harriet, who had been mostly silent during her demonstration, gave another sigh before she began to speak in rapid-fire sentences. "You know," she confided, "I can never tell if the painting is any good or not. My sighted artist friends come over and pick out the good ones and bring them to the local gallery for me. Generally, buyers are not aware that the painting they have purchased was done by an artist who can't see. I don't want people to buy my paintings because they were done by a blind person. I want them to buy them because they like the work. That's why I use a pseudonym for my finished pieces."
I promised to keep her secret. However, I had another question. "Harriet," I said, "I still have some sight, but I have given up painting." I told her about my problem of being a perfectionist. "I know my work can't be as good as it was before I started losing my sight. I can't bring myself to paint anymore. Why do you still paint when you can't see?"
Harriet's reply came instantly in another rush of words. "I have to paint. I have always painted. It's like breathing. I have no choice. It's what I do. It's who I am."
My visit to the artist with an inner vision was the culmination of a long journey. "No, Virginia, I did not become a blind painter, but, yes, Virginia, just like Santa Claus, there are indeed real blind artists out there. And, yes Virginia, if you are truly lucky, someday you may even meet one of these blind artists for yourself."
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