The year I lost “sight”

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Question: What is an artist’s most important asset?

As I write this blog, I am recovering from eye surgery. This came as a sudden shock, after thinking for a few months that I was imagining things when seeing tiny flashes of light when venturing outside after dark on our rural property. But, things become worse as a jagged line, and dark veil, began working their way across my vision in my right eye.

The most important thing for an artist, had I responded to that question months ago, would be something like my materials, my creativity, my use of my arms to paint, or my legs to walk around in the landscape to engage with the environment. However, I would have been wrong. My most important asset, I quickly posited, was and are my eyes, and I am a visual artist, who was facing losing that asset.

As I was shunted from optometrist to emergency at the local public hospital, and then immediately on to the eye and ear hospital, then into surgery, reality set in. I was in danger of losing the sight in my right eye. Then followed fear, and the sudden overwhelming appreciation of everything around me. The sky, the landscape, animals, birds, colours, textures and light. As a painter I draw on my eyes to interpret the landscape as a creative expression of who I am and my relationship with the landscape. What would I do if I lost this valuable and irreplaceable aspect of who I am and what I do?

As all of these thoughts circled in my brain, I remembered Claude Monet. Monet suffered from near-sightedness, and cataracts beginning in about 1912, changing the entire palette of his paintings for over a decade. The beautiful violet and blue tones, and details, disappeared from his work leaving often blurry bold reds and oranges. After consulting surgeons, Monet was fitted with glass lenses, resulting in painting over a lot of his paintings, and a great improvement in his newly inspired lily-pond series. I hope I have a positive result I thought.

Another artist impacted by sight issues was Edgar Degas who began to lose his vision in 1870 from an eye disease. Rather than give up however, he moved from oils to pastels and sculpture creating some of the beautiful works that he is recognised for today. Others suspected of ‘eye problems’ include Van Gogh, Da Vinci and Rembrandt.

So, I realised from this, I am not alone. These and probably many other artists have dealt with health and vision issues, which made me feel only a little better. In the back of my mind remained the fear and question, what if it moves from the right to include the left one? It was, I was told, a feint possibility.

Fortunately, the speed in which decisions were made to get me into surgery, and the positive support from absolutely everyone I was dealing with – especially my husband, I had little time to panic. Within the space of three days I went from diagnosis to recovery from surgery to repair a tear in the back of my eye. All i needed to do now was to obey the instructions from my doctors, to obstain from nearly all of my activities (thankfully, not study – although I will get to that), take my medication, use my eye drops, and sleep on my left side for a month.

Getting back to my studies, I am completing two masters’ exegeses, one which includes a large body of artworks. Thankfully I was ahead of schedule, and they were already in Queensland for exhibiting. I was also ahead in the work for both exegeses. For the sake of transparency though, I decided to keep all my supervisors in the loop, and applied for an extension for submitting my journalism thesis, which was granted. I was sure I could keep writing and editing with one good eye, but my supervisors became very protective and all told me to take at least a couple of weeks off, which I grudgingly did.

It has now been just over three weeks from surgery, and the gas bubble inserted in my eye to press on the surgery area, has now disappeared, and all the symptems are gone. Strangley though, I am still in fear. What if the surgery doesn’t work longer term? What if the likelihood of cataracts as mentioned by the surgeon occurs? I am an artist and arts writer/critic, I NEED my eyes, the idea of living in darkness terrifies me. All negative emotions apart from one… that came from appreciating what I had and nearly lost, my creative vision.

My most recent painting reflects this feeling, as it records a short trip in the car to do some grocery shopping. As my husband heading the car along a local road, that I knew so well just a day after surgery, all I could see from my right eye was large blurs of colour. The trees, the road, fences, hills, everything had lost detail, except for my left eye’s contribution. I thought, I must remember this. This total reduction of my usual immersive involvment with the land. I must remember and record this experience, because, hopefully, I will never have to deal with it again.

Like Monet, Degas and others I admire so much for their ability to overcome setbacks, I found myself “standing on the shoulders of giants” as I took what I could not see and used it to form art. So, nearing the end of this experience, I want to ask the question again, as an artist, what is my most important asset? Yes, it is still my eyesight, but along with that, is my ability to overcome and keep creating unique and original artworks despite the circumstances.

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