Vision Up Vision Down

Two summers ago I walked into a plate-glass window in midtown Manhattan. The glass was so clear and clean, the brass frame so polished, I walked straight up to it thinking it was a door. I hit it hard, face first. The impact was like hitting a black marble wall. I was knocked to my knees. Blood began to run into my right eye.

After two weeks something weird began to happen. Manhattan provides strings of verticals, lines, signs, poles, towers of glass, stone and steel and every vertical line I looked at appeared wavy, as if reflected in a pool of moving water. With a history of eye trouble going back to childhood, I took this in with a low range of calm, and after a few days was examined by my cornea surgeon. Doctors can be opaque. I’m describing this really strange visual phenomena I’m experiencing, and he’s just watching me and listening and I know he knows exactly what’s going on, but he will hold back on saying anything, because I need to be examined, in this case, fast. A retina specialist was in the next room at the hospital, and after a few minutes I was repeating my story, when he interrupted me to take a look. An optical scan clearly showed the inside of the retina required a vitrectomy, microscopic surgery where membrane is peeled from the inner surface of the back of the eye.

I’m told the condition has nothing to do with the collision with plate glass. I find it hard to believe.

Making artwork became an obsession almost in an instant when, at age thirteen, I lay on the floor in a tall dark hotel room in Zurich, my nose pressed to a huge sheet of paper, a thick stub of charcoal blackening my fingers. Ten percent vision was enough to distinguish black on white, but that wasn’t the thrill. The action was getting immediate feedback from drawing on paper.

After six months of waiting, my left eye was ready for a corneal transplant.

Over the forty years that were to follow, I did well at art school and have enjoyed a winding career. My eyes have needed multiple surgeries — five corneal transplants, cataract removal, and most recently, peeling of the retina. Life is vision up, vision down. I’m habituated to shape and color. The boundaries blur but then, life is porous.

It’s been said that luck plays a part but nothing is an accident. I was lucky. I lay on a carpet with a sheet of paper and my life opened on to that canvas. Some of that is here to see.

Below — Pattern Design using magnolias for a dinner plate. This, and the tens of thousands of images and designs I have made draw on my experiences with vision problems and moving past them into clarity, developing a visual language in which images appear new.


Originally published at Howard Stein.

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