Updated: Sep 13
Have you seen me lately? If not you may be surprised to see that I am using a white cane with a red tip and sometimes I wear an eyepatch.
Am I completely blind? NO. If a white cane has a colored element, it indicates that the user has partial vision, though what this means can vary hugely. It may mean that the person has a tiny pinhole of focused vision, or it may mean that they are missing vision in one eye, or it could mean they can see with both eyes but have extremely poor visual acuity. Visual impairment is a vast spectrum.
Can I still paint? YES, but it isn’t as easy as it used to be. I am having a lot of trouble with eyestrain, fatigue, and headaches and it means that I must ration the amount of time that I spend on tasks like computer work and painting. I'm still making strong work, and I have a solo show, "Berths and Ghosts" at Novado Gallery in Jersey City May 11th-June 10th with an artist talk May 20th. For more details, visit the gallery website.
How are these changes impacting my art? I have learned that my floaters are a lot more noticeable on solid backgrounds, light colors, overhead lights, or light coming right at me. It has become unpleasant to paint pictures like this: Canadian Standoff, oil on panel, 24" x 18"
Beautiful blue sky sunny days are terrible. Overcast incredibly grey diffused light is worse. Being in a room with white walls is difficult, as is working on a computer. Warmer colored light is easier on my eyes. The conditions that make my floaters more apparent are also the conditions that make my paintings display the best and the best light for painting, so my
workplace is very hostile to my eyes.
As a result of these things, it causes me the least eyestrain and fatigue if I paint with a lot of patterning in midtones and dark colors. That camouflages the floaters and makes them less apparent. Despite this, I am unable to paint for as long as I used to be able to and am unable to do the amount of work that I used to do in an average day.
If I try to live my life in the manner that was once typical and mundane, it is so hard on my eyes that it puts me out of commission for at least a portion of the next day. I have been unable to do as much volunteer work at the ship as I used to, because doing detail work and being in the sun is very taxing. In a typical day I used to do computer work and paint and teach or volunteer, but I cannot have an entire day's worth of vision-intensive activities like that anymore. I’m trying to find more tactile ways of making art that don’t use my eyes, but I am so detail oriented that I keep cheating.
What is the deal with my eyes? I am blind in my right eye, which is not new. I was born with a cataract and a wandering eye, and my optic nerve on that side is malformed. I had a retinal detachment at 22, and developed glaucoma as a complication of all of the scar tissue from the surgeries. I’m had 9 surgeries on my right eye, and created a body of work inspired by that experience.
I can still see with my left eye, but not as well as I used to. I had a posterior vitreous detachment and now have severe floaters in my left eye. One of them is a large ring and the others are veils of filmy substance which make my vision blurry. All of these things have made my depth perception and peripheral vision worse. Additionally, the new changes in my left eye sometimes make it seem like I am looking through an extremely dirty windshield while staring into the sun. Everything becomes smeared and uncomfortably bright. If I don't have to stare into the sun on the way to work, that means I have more good time that I am able to make art. It is nice to be able to navigate with my cane to give my eyes a break.
I’ve started wearing an eyepatch sometimes because my eyes are fighting over who gets to be in charge. In people with two healthy eyes, if there’s something wrong with one, the other compensates. In my case, my right eye is mostly blind, so my left eye has been in charge for my entire life and largely ignores the mostly blacked-out, unfocused information from the right eye.
Now my left eye has floaters and blurry vision, and the right eye is trying to be helpful by supplying an alternative camera feed. Unfortunately, my right eye doesn’t have a lens, so it will never be able to focus! This gives me horrible eye strain and headaches, so sometimes I put on an eyepatch to tell my right eye, “You don’t know what you’re doing. Go take a nap.”
I painted over this photograph using oil paint to show a more subtle manifestation of the veiled blurry areas and the large ring-shaped floater in my center of vision.
Update: Here's a new post with art that explains more about how I see these days.
Unexpected benefits of using a cane: I no longer have to spend so much attention and energy trying to avoid tripping on things, and people are more patient with me if I am in their way. It also means that cars give me more time to cross the street and are less likely to assume that I will scurry out of their way. I haven’t fallen at all since I have been using a cane, and as a bonus I’ve walked at least ten miles and gone up many stairs without scuffing the toes of my new dress shoes from kicking to locate obstacles.
Because I am no longer preoccupied with not falling down since I have a cane that trips on things before I get to them, I am able to look up and appreciate all of the beautiful architecture in my city. There are fantastic ornamentations that I have been walking by on the same street for nine years and never seen. It is a delight to discover them.
My cane also makes it much less stressful for me to navigate crowds because I don't have to look for holes in the pavement while trying to dodge people as well, and when people see my cane they have a tendency to get out of my way, which is very nice. It also means that they have less of a tendency to see me as a person, and in group social situations people just get out of my way rather than speaking with me, which is not so nice.
What I want: I do not want pity. I do appreciate slight accommodations. For example, if you are speaking to me I appreciate if you stand in front of me or on my left side and not my right side. Likewise if I sit at a table for dinner I prefer to sit with everybody on my left or across from me so that I can talk with everyone and not get a crick in my neck. If someone sits on my right I will either ignore them because I do not see them, or if they are very interesting I will get a crick in my neck.
If I am at a social event with a lot of people, it helps me if the friends I am with are wearing distinctive clothing with a color or a pattern that isn't the same as everybody else in the room. It also helps me if people introduce themselves to me, because I cannot always see in sharp focus as far away as I used to, and certain types of light make me unable to see detail well.
Other accommodations that help everyone are things like removing tripping hazards and not blocking crosswalks. If there is a trash can that is in the middle of the sidewalk on garbage day even if I do not walk directly into it, I may smash the hell out of my hand on it as I swing my cane, which is not a fun time. In Philadelphia there is a lot of construction and a lot of places where the sidewalks are impassable. If you see such a place, kindly report it to 311. This will help it be repaired more quickly, at least in theory.
You see someone using a cane, never grab their arm or touch them. This is startling. If they look confused, ask if they would like help. It isn't a bad idea to say if the light has changed colors or if they have the right of way at a four way stop. It can be confusing to tell if a car is about to turn if you are just going by listening. If there is something blocking the sidewalk that would mean that a cane user has to walk out into the street or cross in the middle of the block, ask if they would like your help and offer your arm. Give concrete directions rather than pointing at things. Special appreciation goes out to the sweet lady who told me that I
was about to walk into a very deep puddle on a rainy day, which would have ruined my shoes. She told me how far to the left to step, how far down the curb was, and when the traffic had changed. At this point I could see well enough to discern those things for myself, but she did not realize that, and she is awesome.
In summary, I’m using a cane now, which is very helpful. Thanks for being cool about it and acting friendly. I am myself and I do the things I used to do, but have lower battery life and I carry a stick.
"Staring" 11" x 22" digital output print, edition of 6, 2006. This print earned 2nd Award in Volkswagen/VSA arts "DRIVEN" competition and was exhibited in the Smithsonian. I received a grant, the exhibition traveled the country for two years, and I was featured in The Chicago Tribune's Weekend Magazine, which you can read here. I still have a couple of these prints available, as well as some from the rest of the series of 9, which narrate my experience dealing with a retinal detachment.