When an artist’s vision is compromised

Living in a mirrored diptych

My eyes were damaged by Graves’ eye disease about five years ago. Early in the disease process, maybe as an attempt to convince myself, I vowed, “Creativity is not dependent upon visual acuity.” Over the next couple of years, this became a mantra.

"Beneath a Miner's Lamp," by Treacy Ziegler. 53x47", Diptych, oil on panels. Ziegler says: "I began this a week after my first surgery. (For the four years of the active disease, I did a series of still lifes involving watermelons. I didn't understand my visual attraction to the watermelon until later, when it occurred to me that the watermelon was metaphor for eyes.)"

Think of it: If creativity were solely dependent upon good vision, then something like evaluating art school candidates would be uncomplicated. Schools need only administer a simple eye acuity test for a definitive and quantitative determination of an applicant’s artistic ability.

How many artists throughout history have had eye problems? Degas, Cézanne, Monet, O’Keeffe, El Greco, Seurat, and Close, to name a few — and, according to ophthalmologist Michael Marmor, this may suggest a positive relationship between eye disturbances and increased creativity. Good news for my team.

After the local doctor tells me I might go blind, I go to a specialist. This doctor gives me hope: I probably will not go blind, but my eyes will be compromised by the inflammation attacking them. Graves’ eye disease is like a hurricane in my eyes. It does a lot of damage for a couple years, and then supposedly moves on completely, but not without leaving behind a wreck: scar tissue creating deformities of my eye sockets, blurred vision, sunlight sensitivity, and double vision. Until this hurricane subsides, there is nothing to do but wait. Unlike a hurricane, there are no precautionary measures — I can’t board up the windows to protect myself, just wait.

Eventually, in this waiting, I conclude, “I have been in training for this.” Who is better prepared to deal with the inability to see than an artist? I know as a landscape artist that sunlight is never exactly how I need it to be; it’s either shining into my eyes, making it hard to see what I am looking at, or shining from behind, casting my shadow onto the working surface and making it hard to see. Add to this the fact that sunlight is always changing its position; it’s never a compliant partner.

All artists know that seeing seems easy until seeing becomes the focus; then seeing is hard.

As a printmaker, I work in a labyrinth. In the process of creating an etching, light is dark and dark is light; right is left and left is right; in is out and out is in. Even in this reversal of the visual world, I can’t see what I am doing because I am working underground; beneath the asphaltum ground in which the lines are etched. One non-printmaking artist asks, “What’s it like to be always in the negative?” Actually, in the process of printmaking, the distinction between negatives and positives collapse to where opposites do not exist. Visual disturbances to a printmaker may be nothing more than creating an etching.

Seeing what can't be seen

My doctor is great, but he and I are parallel thinkers from different worlds. His is of science, and mine is art. After what seems like the eighth doctor visit in the same number of months and who knows how many readings of an eye chart, I complain, “Dr. Feldon, what I need to see as an artist has nothing at all to do with whether I can see the big E of which you seem so fond. I need to see form created by light and see form destroyed by shadow. I need to see the subtle color changes between red-violet and a little less red in the red-violet. I need to see the deadness of a dead bird. I need to find visible the invisible burden of gravity. Do you have the instruments to measure this?!”

When I see the sad expression on my doctor’s face apologizing, “This is all I have,” I don’t force my artistic point.

After the first surgery, the post-hurricane cleanup, the disease, surprisingly, returns to inflict more damage. This time the disease leaves me with severe double vision. Space is so visually distorted that the double images could just as well be in different geographic hemispheres.

In some respects I have always taken space for granted. I am not talking about a specific house being here or there, but space in general. I have always taken for granted that space follows a rational organization allowing for security in that space — that it will always be there and that it follows rules. It no longer feels that way. The rule that states something can only occupy a single position in space at any one time remains practical, but is now available to alternative interpretations, rendering the rule well this side of absolute. The experience of double vision does not make one image real and the other image its simulacrum; both images are real in my experience.

The second surgery, 22 months after the first, continued the cleanup and reconstructive surgery to my eyelids. I was scheduled to have corrective surgery for the double vision during this second surgery, but my doctor and I decided not to attempt that much surgery at one time. Presently, I have corrective lenses — recovery from Graves' disease is a work in progress.

Compromised vision is a professional’s phrase. As an artist, I see what I see and from that “whatever,” I make art. That has always been the case — giving a nod to Degas, Cézanne, and the rest. What lingers from the disease is the experience that space is chaos — was, is, and may always be — even now when my sight, most of the time, is mono-vision. As a landscape artist I should have seen this capricious nature of space. After all, every runner knows that no two miles are ever equal. Perhaps I did in a tacit way.

It is this spatial ambiguity that compels me to go to prisons. Not to change people — I don’t have the skill to tell a good person from a bad one, or vice versa — but to explore the strange dichotomy of imposed absolute control on the mysterious and ambiguous experience of space.


Note: The second image is "Bird in a Labyrinth," by Treacy Ziegler. 15x27" Diptych, oil on panels. It was painted about a year after her first surgery and 10 months before the second surgery.

Our readers respond

Michael Maxwell

of Rock Stream , NY on January 21, 2014

I have always loved Treacy Ziegler's work. We have a 2005 mono print "Once a Light House" that I never tire of looking at and that is a daily source of inspiration. Her articles in The Broad Street Review have been fascinating and extremely illuminating. Thank you.

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