I’m working on an article for publication. Thought I would share it with you and solicit feedback. Thoughts and comments (within reason) are welcome.
Where does the fear take you?
Do you run? Do you fight? Do you freeze?
Of the many fears I harbour, one of the greatest is the loss of the vision I have left.
I think of it often.
When I was in my early twenties, while working a summer job to pay for my college education I had an accident. I was painting the ceiling of a parkade and a mid-sized glob of paint made it past my coke-bottle glasses and landed in my good eye. I quickly wiped it away, but my vision was smeared over. I panicked and my active imagination went into overdrive, quickly mapping out the worst-case scenario: total blindness.
I was heading into my second year at theatre school, so I was well-practiced in the art of the dramatic. I imagined that I would never be able to leave the house again. Thrust into the abyss, I could never work. Anger at my plight, depression, and most likely suicide would be inevitable.
How could I possibly live without my eyesight?
There is a phrase I have heard so often that it has become something of a mantra. I'm sure you've heard it, too. Perhaps, like I once did, you've even said, "I'd kill myself if I went blind".
Truly, most people don't think of it very often. Perhaps only when they see someone with a white cane or a guide dog, or when they're getting their eyes checked or have to adjust their glasses. It's no lie to say that for me, the loss of my vision is a well-honed fantasy. It has lingered on the periphery since I was a child and fuels my passion for seeing the world. Thankfully, the paint-glob did no lasting damage, and my eyesight would remain as it was for the next few years at least.
In 1975, at just over one year old I was diagnosed with Bilateral Retinoblastoma. This cancer of the eyes, a rather rare form of the dreaded disease covered the retina of my right eye and formed three small tumours in my left. My right eye was removed completely and my left eye was subjected to radiation to destroy the tumours. A cataract developed in my remaining eye over the next few years and I soon had surgery to address the clouding which resulted.
My right eye was replaced with a prosthesis and was completely blinded. In the left eye there remained less than 10% vision. Floaters, flashers, a cataract, extreme light sensitivity and tunnel vision are my "normal".
I have never known anything else, so to think of life with perfect eyesight lingers on the other side of my periphery. As you can see, vision is a prominent theme in my life. Trying to fit into the sighted world and adapt to keep up as best I can is a constant challenge.
I am the youngest of four boys.
We are a family of artists: actors, musicians, writers, painters. Any and all artistic pursuits were open to us as children. Our parents thrived in creativity. "Try it," was a phrase often heard in our house. Growing up, my family never left me behind. I wonder at their boundless patience. I was included in every game imaginable and was given the space to try and even excel in areas that might have otherwise been restricted by a disability. I can ride a bike, I can juggle. I learned to draw and play sports. Throughout my life, my family have supported me and challenged me and in every way are the reason I am here today. They are my life-blood.
My family are all artists and so it is no wonder I have chosen a life in creative pursuit. I celebrate and delight in my small amount of vision every day and have made it my artistic practice to express how it is that I see the world, which is, I think, a fairly innocuous objective and the core of any artistic endeavour.
Due to the build up of scar tissue from the process of radiation when I was a child, my field of view is restricted to a fraction of my retina. This is what I call extreme tunnel-vision. There are dozens of floating pieces of detritus constantly moving about, even when my eyes are closed, and a sudden change of light will completely blind me. Surrounding objects that I see there is a ring of light which changes in colour and intensity moment by moment. An aura, if you will. I have attempted to capture some of these oddities in visual art pieces since I started seriously painting in 2011.
I wake early to soak in the sunrise and shiver with joy at every new vista I explore. The character of a face enraptures me; the shape, the tone, the form. The bud of a leaf or expanse of sky will stop me in my tracks. There is no end to the beauty of this world and I know first-hand how precious the sight of it is.
As I age into my forties and my eyesight changes with strain and sensitivity, I have to work even harder to keep the darkness at bay, both literally and figuratively. Eye care is a major concern. I'm extremely careful with my contact lens, eye drops, sunglasses, etc. I have taken up a white cane in the last 10 years. It has saved my life and opened up the world for me. Beneath all of this, there is a lingering feeling that I'm "getting worse".
My eye doctor, Brad MacDougall told me once that my diminishing eyesight is simply a matter of age. "It's scary, but if you're lucky enough to get old, it's something you have to face. Thankfully, there are people to face it with," and he offered me his hand. He later came to sit for a portrait and told me about his passion: vision. He has travelled the world and helped people everywhere improve their eyesight and take better care of their vision. The loss of eyesight is a universal fear and helping people through their fear is something that he's passionate about.
This fear often locks me up. I freeze in the face of it. I'm like an improvisor, onstage for the first time and facing an expectant crowd. "What comes next?" is asked, and I lock up, unable to open my mouth for fear of being exposed. I want the safety of the "known" and not to have to tumble into the chaos and uncertainty of the future Thankfully, there are people to face it with.
Before he passed, my father articulated his desire that I no longer grieve what is lost but celebrate what remains. In moments of panic or fear I think only of what will be lost, clinging to what I have for comfort.
In my creative flow, when I move from joy I find myself in the act of celebration. It is a lesson I encounter time and time again as I study the creative arts. Fear is what locks up the creator and stops one from taking risks: Fear of making a mistake, fear of being judged.
Fear is the universal block.
When I think of joy and celebration, I feel my whole being open up. My eyes grow wider. My chest expands. I imagine that the space between my very cells expands. This is the place of creative flow. In fear, I am constricted and tight and locked.
In the words of my mentor, James Gordaneer, "when you're stuck… keep painting".
To my artistic practice I am ever grateful. My painting practice keeps my eye open. It asks me to look. It's not about the product. It's about the practice.
In the last 12 months I have travelled the circumference of the planet, sketching and painting and sharing my experiences. Since 2011 I have painted over 700 portraits of friends, family, and colleagues. This is a daily practice. It has become like breathing for me. An expansion and an inspiration. The exhalation, the release, the output is full of joy and delight in seeing. It is my pleasure to share it with you.