Artistic Vision They're Legally Blind, but When It Comes to Turning Their Ideas into Art, These Artists See Nothing Short of 20/20

By DeFiglio, Pam | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), May 27, 2003 | Go to article overview

Artistic Vision They're Legally Blind, but When It Comes to Turning Their Ideas into Art, These Artists See Nothing Short of 20/20


DeFiglio, Pam, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Pam DeFiglio Daily Herald Staff Writer

Eileen Crowley wishes she could lose herself in her art, relaxing as she brushes paint on a canvas.

But for her, there's nothing comfortable about it.

"It's not easy," she says. "It's frustrating, mind-boggling, nerve-wracking."

Crowley is legally blind, having lost almost all of her vision in the past four years.

"Many times I put down my brush and say, 'I can't do this anymore" says Crowley, 69, of Lombard.

"Then two days later, I pick it up. It's what I have to do. It's who I am," she says, her voice wavering in defiance.

Like Crowley, Cindy Tassio of Glen Ellyn doesn't let her failing sight get in the way of her art. She takes pride in the fact that her art provides a different perspective - that of a woman who sees only through peripheral vision.

The work of both artists, and others like them, is highlighted in "Passionate Focus," an art exhibit on display through Friday in the atrium of the James R. Thompson Center, at Randolph and Clark streets in Chicago.

People typically don't associate the words "blind" and "artist" with one another, concedes David Tabak, executive director of the Catholic Guild for the Blind, which organized the exhibit.

"It's counterintuitive - an art show by people who are blind and visually impaired," he says. "But artists who are blind and visually impaired have artistic inclination and creativity just as other artists do."

Seeing the light

The idea for the show originated when Tabak was talking to a professional artist friend.

Tabak told him a visually impaired person on his staff was also an artist.

"He was skeptical and said, 'How could that be?"" Tabak recalls.

The answer is that many of the artists have some sight.

"Eighty percent of legally blind people have residual sight," says Tabak. "Only 20 percent are totally blind."

What they do with that residual sight is mighty impressive, according to Courtney Graham Donnell, a former curator for the Art Institute of Chicago, and one of three top-level jurors brought in to judge the Guild exhibit.

"We were instructed to judge on the merits of the art itself, not anything about the biography of artists," she said. "In some cases I was really floored. They were completely excellent. It's quite remarkable."

The gray gauze

Crowley likes to hear words like that, but they have little to do with the reason she paints.

"When I'm doing a painting, I don't think about how other people view it. If other people like it, fine, but I have to express myself," she explains.

She studied art in high school and college, but raising five children and working as a directory assistance operator kept her from painting.

"I decided on retirement I'd devote myself to art," she says.

But in 1999, just four months before she retired, an eye hemorrhage destroyed most of the vision in her right eye. Now macular degeneration is robbing the left eye.

Her central vision is gone, so that she sees only grayness when she looks directly at something. Around the edges of her field of vision, she sees shapes and shadows.

"It's like if you had a piece of gray gauze in front of your eyes," she says.

All she can really see is the lower left quadrant of her left eye's field of vision. Some days, this limited vision gets even worse.

Losing her sight was discouraging, but she knew giving up art would make her feel worse.

"When I have a dry spell, I feel depressed, because I have a strong drive to do it, and when you withhold a strong drive, it turns inward and causes depression," she says. …

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