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Have You Seen Me Lately?

Updated: Mar 26

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 I wear an eyepatch and an assortment of fabulous hats.

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. You can skip to the details of what's wrong with my eyes if you wish.

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. It means that I must ration the amount of time that I spend on tasks like computer work and painting, but I'm still making strong work. In May of 2023 I had a solo show, "Berths and Ghosts" at Novado Gallery in Jersey City. To see installation views and press, click here.

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:

Beautiful blue sky sunny days are terrible, and I can only work on watercolors outside for about an hour before I get headaches, nausea, and need to spend the afternoon wearing a frozen eye mask. I used to watercolor a lot when on vacation with my family, but once I discovered this is kind of kryptonite, I elected to spend time with people I don't see very often rather than taking myself out of commission in the service of art. I only made a small handful of watercolors this year. You can see them here.

"Floating Formations," 6" x 6" watercolor

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. Being in a room with white walls is difficult, as is working on a computer. Wearing a giant hat at all times is extremely helpful for this, and painting some of the walls in my workspace dark gray has been a game-changer as well. Things were way worse earlier this year, so a lot of my paintings were 4" x 4" to minimize the amount of white I was seeing.

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. As I've learned how to manage things better, I've reintroduced lighter values as dominant shapes. I've always been way too stubborn to prevent this from making the things I want to make.

I've been taking ceramics classes at The Clay Studio and creating tactile companion pieces for my paintings. This year, I've made a lot more blind and low-vision friends, and I want to make my art accessible for more people by creating pieces that are meant to be touched. Let me know if you'd like to set up a studio visit or art lesson customized for people with visual disabilities.

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 my lens removed when I was 9 months old, and never had proper vision in my right eye. I had a retinal detachment at 22, and developed glaucoma as a complication of all of the scar tissue from the previous surgeries. I’ve 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've made an additional post with explanatory artwork. 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, and sometimes I am temporarily blinded. This happens most frequently in intersections where there's no shade provided by buildings, so using the cane makes me less likely to get hit by cars or trip in potholes. 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. Wearing an assortment of broad-brimmed hats creates artificial shade and actually makes me less blind!

I’ve started wearing an eyepatch 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 can only see a small amount of movement and light, 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 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 illustrate the way that bright sunlight diminishes my vision and highlights the large ring-shaped floater.

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. All pedestrians are safer if there are no tripping hazards on sidewalks and vehicles aren't blocking crosswalks. Please trim your plants because no one enjoys being hit in the face with a tree branch. 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.

It helps me if people introduce themselves to me on the street 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. If I don't say hello, I might not have seen you.

If you are speaking to me I appreciate if you stand in front of me or on my left side and not on my blind 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 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.

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