Georgia O’Keeffe, Edgar Degas, and Titian were all luminaries in their respective eras of art history, but there’s another commonality among the trio: Experts believe all three had macular degeneration, a condition in the retina marked by a loss or blurring of vision. Writer A’Dora Phillips and artist Brian Schumacher, the co-founders of The Vision and Art Project, began researching the topic nine years ago and quickly learned it isn’t an issue that’s going away anytime soon. The incurable eye disease is still a leading cause of major vision loss for adults over 50. But did you know nearly 80% of the visual system exists in the brain? Pair this with the intimate relationship between touch and sight, A’Dora says, and we see how vision is much more mysterious than you may think.
“Before I started this project, I still thought of visual experience and visual arts in very limited ways, as being only connected to the eyes,” A’Dora says. “What I’ve learned through researching and talking to artists today is that the visual experience is in the body in many other ways as well. It’s not limited to the acuity of our vision. Vision and the haptic sense of touch are intimately connected.”
Artists, she says, are tapped into that. “When they no longer have access to the acuity they’re used to, often these other aspects will help compensate. You see how their work changes with them.”
Consider the abstract quality of Serge Hollerbach’s painting, which came to the forefront when he faced the disease. He says he relied on his “third eye,” calling it “something your spirit or your mind or your soul sees,” A’Dora says.
Stories like these helped to form The Vision and Art Project, documenting and providing resources for living artists struggling with vision loss. A’Dora and Brian continue to share through exhibits like “Persistence of Vision” above (see samples in the gallery above), film, and writing. A film about American painter Robert Andrew Parker, A Is for Artist, made with Cathleen O’Connell of Desert Penguin Pictures, began screening in summer 2018. A public screening will take place on January 12, 2019, at The Cornwall Library.