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Sharing Their Vision

Blindness can be hard enough for most people to cope with, but imagine painting a picture you can barely see. For artists under the care of ophthalmologist Dr. Paul Beer, making—and showing—art is a reality. Beer, a partner at the Retina Consultants group practice in Slingerlands, is the founder of the Blind Artists Society. Although none of the artists are completely blind, members have vision problems ranging from the severe to mildly obstructive. The supporting artists have minor vision problems, if any.

The BAS is a project of the Retina Research Foundation—a not-for-profit corporation—and it started with a conversation Beer had with one of his patients, Anne Leaf. “She was terribly depressed because she was losing more and more vision, so she could no longer paint. She was a professional illustrator and painter,” Beer said. “The idea came to me that perhaps I can set up [one of her] paintings in our office, to try to motivate her to go back to painting as best as she can.”

Although Beer’s mother, Emilia, is an artist, as well as his son, Jon, he said he hopes his family ties remain a very marginal aspect of the show. “I hope to just be a fund-raiser and a foundation supporter,” he said.

“[My family has] that affinity towards art, and a sensitivity towards art. My mother had also lost vision from glaucoma, but it was really my own patients who were losing central vision, for whom everything is getting blurrier and less distinct, that this came about,” he said.

From there, Beer set up a Web site, or rather, a Web portal for the artists, where they could display their art online, find buyers, and discuss their feelings and experiences. “The Web site portal now has 18 artists and 12 supporting artists. We have some people from Brazil, and someone from Greece,” Beer said. “From the Web site, we said, ‘Let’s have a real gallery,’ let’s have a show that’s a real show and not a virtual one.”

The show, which drew over 200 people to the gala reception on Dec. 4 at the Albany Institute of History & Art, featured paintings made by artists of varying degrees of sight. Some are nearly blind due to glaucoma, cataracts, or macular degeneration; this includes artists like Leaf, who suffered a stroke in her left eye before losing even more sight in her right eye due to wet macular degeneration. Her picture of a pile of peaches, enlarged and rendered in vibrant pastels, was all she could submit to the show. In her artists’ bio on the Web site, she said her poor vision prevented her from painting any more. While she continues to receive treatment to slow her macular degeneration, she said she fights depression and hopes to return to the studio.

The paintings by Charlotte Mouquin captured blurry, ethereal splashes of color without offering clear definition. She said her paintings are all representative of the vision loss she experienced in one eye. Two of the three on display at the institute were part of her 2 Face series. The third, entitled I Saw Red, looked like a psychedelic trip down the river Styx. She explained her inspiration for I Saw Red, as well as the rest of her artwork, came from her experience with diminishing sight. She said she had felt “like maybe everything will go red, or will go dark. Like a curtain coming down over my vision.”

Mouquin described the world she sees as being “like looking through a bottle of clear oil, or seeing through a fish-eye lens.” Some images are blocked out of her sight, and she has experienced a loss of peripheral vision. Her problems started when she was young, when she was temporarily blinded by Marfan’s Syndrome. Following that, Mouquin has dealt with many complications and further maladies, such as a detached retina, glaucoma, and almost complete blindness in her left eye. “It’s pretty severe,” she said. “I can still see out of the eye, but not well at all.”

In dealing with her frustration, she creates art that “deals with the reality of not just thinking about individual experience, but about the world at large.” One of her paintings of the 2 Face series shows a face with a messy splotch obscuring one eye. When asked if it was a self-portrait, she said, “I think everything I do is a self-portrait in some way. But there will never be a picture of me with two perfect eyes.”

Beer is using this project to help artists like Mouquin to spread awareness of their art, and hopefully find potential buyers. In his commitment to motivate his artists to do more, Beer cites the key to success against blindness is not giving up. “There are some that are legally blind who are very successful people because they don’t give up, they find a way to adapt. And their life is full and rich,” he said. However, for those who give in to depression and codependency, “They start to spiral down.”

“There is no fee and no cost,” Beer said. “This is meant to be completely and thoroughly inclusive.” Some artists donate some of their profits to the society or Beer’s research foundation, but he said “the support is all emotional. And it comes from being in a show like this.”

— Allie Garcia

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