Painting in Memories

I’m sort of frustrated, but also a little glad that I can’t see. When I was 14, I was in a high school art class where I strove to learn how to depict every detail of whatever object was our model. One day, our teacher gave us a piece of paper and a pen and placed a dried yucca stalk on a table in the middle of the room. I resisted drawing the stalk of a yucca plant with a pen, because I feared making a mistake I couldn’t erase. My art teacher had to take the pencil and eraser that I snuck out of my backpack away from me. She instructed me to draw and see what I got, to give up my efforts towards perfection. In the end, I was mad about how the spacing on the page turned out and I didn’t like the texture on the seed pods. I wished I could have made corrections or at least practiced before making the final version. I wanted to do it right, and I didn’t think it was fair to expect me to do it right on my first try.

A few weeks later, I went blind. I had to give up my dedication to an accurate representation of what I was drawing permanently. I no longer had the option of making a direct translation between what my eyes saw and what my hand put on the paper. Instead, I had to either give up art or figure out something new.

After I went blind, I went back to school for the last month of the year. My art teacher had no idea what to do with me, so she gave me a pencil and paper and told me to have at it. I decided to draw one of the last things I had seen. We had hiked along a dry and rocky terrain somewhere in New Mexico until the trail ended in a cool nook with small cliffs with spring water supporting ferns on one side and large leafy trees that proved water was unusually close to the surface on the other. After lunch, the two little girls on the trip with us started hiking back early, while I sat in a rocking chair on the porch of an old rancher’s house converted into one for a forest ranger. A stand of aspen trees bordered the cleared area with a range of mountains in the distance. At that time, returning to school after a severe accident, I lacked a vocabulary to explain to others what had happened to me. I decided to try and show them one of the very last moments they might be able to understand. I didn’t have the patience to draw every aspen leaf, so I tried to think of an alternative. I tried to think of what movement I could make on the page to give the feeling of aspen leaves. I decided the roundness contrasting with the pointiness, trembling between light and shadow, was the essence of looking at a bunch of aspen leaves. I imagined how I would move if I were an aspen leaf, and then I channeled it down my arm, into my hand, through the pencil, and onto the page. At the very end of class, I threw in some ragged mountains halfway behind the leaves, and then I showed them what I had created. A couple people saw it, patted me on the head, and told me it was pretty. Even if they didn’t literally pat me on the head, I knew that I had failed to communicate what I wanted. I was wistful for the moment in the shade of a porch and trees in my recent history that was moving farther and farther away from me, and I had already moved too far into this new world of blindness that other people could not understand. I still wonder if the effect of what I drew really was simply inadequate, or of the problem was mostly with the viewers’ lack of experience that would let them understand.

That first day back in art class was the beginning of my mission to find a way to explain my experience of the visual, without being able to see. I do see things, even if I can’t literally see them. I try to translate, to bridge the gap, between worlds. If I want to visually communicate something about a dog, I try to find the least number of lines I can use to depict the spirit and essence of the dog. I see a line of energy running between the tail and the nose, both perked in excitement or hanging with defeat and another line making up the motion of its legs. I try to think of what I need to do with that line to make someone think “dog,” without needing to fill in all the details. I appreciate how my blindness hides the actual dog from me and makes me look at the dog I create in my head. It allows and forces me to dig past the surface and search for what is inside.

At the same time, I regret that I can’t see the final result of what I create. One area where I’m left entirely to imagine my results is with colors. When I could see, I was very conservative with colors; I wanted them to safely match. Now though, I think of bright and bold colors that don’t match according to traditional rules, and I want to put them together. For example, I put turquois and magenta and orange together in a tangled knot of color. In my head, I like it, but I wish I could see it. I think about balancing warmth with coolness and I seek out brightness I might be too shy for in real life. I wish I could see the moment when combinations of color cross from being interesting to overwhelming.

Most recently, I’ve been playing around with watercolors. When I paint with watercolor, I imagine the colors and shapes and effects I want, but I don’t know if I’m achieving them. The other day, I wanted to paint a person and then have her disappearing from the paper. It turns out that I basically managed to wash her completely off the page with my paint brush and water. I had to show the paper to someone else, have her tell me what happened, and then go back with a different approach to keep trying to find the effect I wanted. I wish I could look at the page and see the exact moment when the paint takes the shape and movement and shade I want. Although, if I could see it, there’s a good chance that I would stick to painting pretty flowers and sunsets.

I did not want to go blind. I feel like a tortoise living in a world of monkeys. They can see and experience and know so much that I cannot from my spot on the ground, looking up at them. Current research says that about 70% of our sensory input is visual, and that if there is dissonance between information from our eyes and any other sense, our brains will favor the information from the eyes. Of course, the brains of blind people adapt to gleam more information from and to pay more attention to other senses, but I still miss being able to see the world. I know the beginning of the archetypal story I find myself living; the protagonist reluctantly leaves what is known and comfortable because it no longer exists. Now she must find a new version of home. I don’t know how the story ends. I am forced to find a new way to see the world because I don’t have any other choice. And some of it is good. I still wish I could go back to just seeing in the regular way, even though I know that I would lose some of what I gain from the situation I’m forced to be in. It’s hard to live in a tension where there is no comfortable or satisfying solution.


2 thoughts on “Painting in Memories

  1. Amelia, I love your voice, your honesty, your ability to describe so beautifully with words what you are trying to create through art on paper. I loved reading this.

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