Monday, February 25, 2013

Artists overcoming disabilities

Today is Renoir's birthday and this video shows Renoir painting.  While it's great to see Renoir painting - it's even more significant to see how this great painter was still able to paint despite the very severe ulnar deviation associated with the profound Rheumatoid Arthritis he experienced in later life.
One must from time to time attempt things that are beyond one’s capacity. 
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
His hands are exactly the same as those of my Great Aunt - which is what I noticed straight away.  Note how he never opens his hands properly, how his fingers are twisted at an angle and how a brush has to be placed in his hand but is not strapped to his hand.

Unique Film of Pierre-Auguste Renoir Painting (1915)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841 - 1919) suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis for the last 25 years of his life. He became afflicted by Rheumatoid Arthritis around the age of 50.  It then became very aggressive around about 1903 when he was 60 and by 70 and for the last seven years of his life he was severely disabled.  The above video was made in 1915 - three years after he lost the ability to walk and started using a wheelchair to get about.  The bandages on his hands were to absorb sweat to avoid skin irritation of the soft tissues of his hands and any deterioration due to maceration.  He lost weight because of rheumatoid cachexia and nodules developed with the ones on his back being particularly troublesome.

He believed in physical exercise to remain in good condition and retain mobility - but walking failed to deliver the sort of mobility he needed to be an artist.
He had no great faith in the benefit of walking which brought into play only certain muscles. He believed much more in ball-games and began juggling every morning 10 minutes before going to his studio. 
Jean Renoir (film Director and Renoir's son)
He also adapted his approach to painting to his progressive deformities and inability to hold items
When it became difficult to hold his palette in his hand he first let it balance on his knees and the edge of the easel. Later, he asked for it to be fixed, like a rotating table on the arm of his wheelchair
How Renoir coped with rheumatoid arthritis
Annelies Boonen, Jan van de Rest, Jan Dequeker, Sjef van der Linden
It's worth noting that he completed 400 works of art with deformed hands and all the other ills associated with this severe form of arthritis.  The article cited above is enormously inforative about the various ways Renoir managed to continue to paint despite very severe disability and pain.

This landscape was painted by Renoir in 1915 - the same year as the film of him painting.

Landscape with cabin (1915) by Pierre Auguste Renoir
Chuck Close

Other artists have also had to deal with problems with their hands.  The most famous contemporary artist is Chuck Close who who suffered a blood clot in his spinal column 1988 which resulted in paralysis.  He has his brushes strapped to his hands in order to allow him to paint his famous portraits.

Rather fewer people know that he also suffers from Prosopagnosia (face blindness) - which means he cannot recognise faces.  His practice of portraiture - the process of creating two dimensional flattened paintings of his friends - enabled him to learn what they looked like in real life.

Chuck Close remains interested in portraiture because it continues to present him with a challenge while at the same time enabling him to find a way of working around the way he was created.

Other artists with eye problems

There are any number of artists who are recorded as having very significant problems with their eyesight (see Eye disease gave great painters a different vision of their work, Stanford researcher says)

Claude Monet - using eyeglasses - in the Grande Allee of the Clos Normand at Giverny
  • Monet had repeated operations for cataracts and continued to paint even when his appreciation of colour was completely distorted
  • Degas had defective eyesight all his life.  In his mid 30s, retinopathy (an inability to cope with bright light and sunlight in particular) led him to work in his studio in preference to working plein air.  As his vision deteriorated he began to work with broader stokes of pure colour and to abandon the detail which he was able to observe when younger. By the end of his life he was blind - by which time he'd taken to making maquettes as a way of drawing with forms which could be felt rather than seen
  • Cassatt also had cataracts which dimmed her vision and operations intended to improve her eyesight led to worse vision.  This led her to give up first printmaking and later painting.  She also is said to have suffered from retinopathy and it's possible that the friendship between Degas and Cassatt was in part due to them both experiencing similar problems with their eyes
  • Cezanne was myopic and it could be said benefitted from seeing a blur without details.
  • O'Keeffe suffered from macular degeneration - one of the most common causes of blindness.  She was blind before she died - and yet continued to sculpt
So where am I going with all this......

Essentially it's about reminding me NOT to be a wimp and to continue to engage with finding ways to make my own disabilities more tolerable and to remain engaged with art - maybe in different ways - despite any problems presented by increasing age and increasingly irritating infirmity.  (I rather suspect this might resonate with others who read this blog as well!)

My own challenge

I'm getting some brand new lenses - in my eyes rather than my glasses.

I've now got my surgery dates and have got used to the idea so I'm now able to write about it on this blog.

Eye surgery in May - two operations, three weeks apart - will replace the lenses in my eyes.

This is a big deal.  I had a lot of tests at a specialist Eye hospital when a small child (age 5-10) as my father was their youngest ever patient with glaucoma and he was being treated by this teaching hospital with research programmes.  As a result I can't even cope with eye drops. I'm the patient with an extreme aversion to anybody going anywhere near my eyes and extremely fast reflexes who once had six people holding her down while they tried to put in drops for a pressure test!

My eyesight has deteriorated a lot in the last year or so.   Some of you may have noticed I've not been doing a lot of "proper" art.

I've got two problems - both hereditary - one from each side.

One is chronic (Cataracts) and a huge nuisance in relation to seeing both tone and detail and the other  is verging on acute and potentially very serious which is why this is now moving along fairly fast.  My doctors are hopeful that the brand new lenses will fix both problems while I should get  greatly improved eyesight as well.

I've been working out how to work round things for some time - with varying degrees of success.

Good contrast seems to be the key at present to dealing with my cataracts.   The things I still have problems with are reading labels with small print ( I have magnifiers everywhere!) and/or where there is poor contrast.  I totally identify with the notion of it being similar to the light having dimmed.  Plus I no longer drive when people are using headlights (the starburst problem) or when there's a risk of naturally dim weather and/or poor visibility.

I can see to work in text if I can magnify it and adjust brightness levels. My 27" Apple iMac screen is a huge boon as I can zoom in while still seeing the whole width of a page.  Plus Chrome lets me fix an embedded zoom level - which is why it's my browser of choice at the moment.  (If you want to know how just leave a comment)

In terms of art I've opted to stick to sketching for the most part as that's something which still seems to work OK as long as I'm not trying to be too precise.  I've had to give on anything with too much detail.  It's very frustrating and that's probably the bit I've adjusted to least well.  I can't do subjects where I want to do the detail.

Producing larger works of art - particularly botanical art - in a more formal way - is more difficult as I find the translation between details and the big picture a lot more complicated than it used to be.  I've started quite a few works and had to give them up - although the process did provide food for thought in terms of what I can cope with.  One solution is to work larger - so I can see what I'm doing - and in a more broad brush way!

Visiting exhibitions has also become a real problem.  I can't read the labels on the wall unless I get up close.  I have thought of taking a magnifying glass with me but thought it might look rather silly - particularly now that many galleries provide large print explanations.  (However they haven't quite mastered the art of getting the right big print brochures in the right boxes - and they migrate between rooms!)

What all this means for me, is that, from the beginning of May, I'm going to have nearly ten weeks of somewhat odd vision.  I'm intrigued as to what it will be like.

I'm booked into Moorfields (a postgraduate teaching eye hospital) for two operations in May  to have my "real permanent in my eye lenses" removed and replaced.  My new synthetic lens will apparently be adjusted to give me great longsight vision.

There's a delay of about three weeks between operations. Plus I have to wait until the new lenses have bedded in - which takes about 6 weeks - before I can get a prescription for new reading glasses and an assessment to see if I still need computer glasses. I'm just very thankful for the fact I always keep my old glasses and I'm hoping that amongst them and my current glasses we can find ones which will work for computers and close work during the 10 weeks.   We shall see - in more ways than one (pun!).

Mind you they still have to teach me how to put eye drops in!  Eeeeeek!

How about you?  Do you have a disability or other challenge which you need to work round in order to to create art?

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  1. Torn rotator cuff and arthritis in my hand. As my brother likes to say "suck it up". Good luck with your operation everyone I know has had amazing improvement in their vision - I hope the same for you.

    1. Many thanks Suzy - I hope your tear gets better.

  2. Sending positive energy your way!
    I appreciate all the work you do on this blog and hope that you will be doing you own work again soon.

  3. Sending positive energy your way.
    I appreciate all the work you do on this blog and hope that you will soon be back to doing your work.

  4. Best of luck for the operation and a speedy recovery. (I'm rubbish at eye drops and things too...)

  5. I have chronic fatigue syndrom (ME), osteoarthritis and a slipped disc, I cope by taking lots of painkillers! I used to work part time but had to give it up and now am relying on my art, not easy! Good luck with your surgery.

    1. Amanda - your watercolours are amazing - and even more so for knowing that you achieved them with despite your issues re how your body works.

      Painkillers are the one thing I try to avoid taking if possible - I'm always concerned about the amount of damage they can also do.

  6. As always Katherine, you are an inspiration. Thank you for this post.
    Julie x

  7. Friend of mine had a car accident, and because of injuries, he has to have his hammer strapped to his hand. He is an artist blacksmith by trade, and has become the top blacksmith at a pioneer village just outside Toronto.

    Another developed "light metal poisoning" by forging zinc coated steel. If it wasn't for the lead in his system from pouring bullets (he is a black powder re-enactor), the zinc would have killed him. Chelation is his friend. Something similar happened to a boat painter who used white and red lead on his boats below the water line. That stuff is not allowed any more.

    And yet another potter friend discovered that the natural glazes his old witchy grandmother used to brew up for his firing had a LOT of cadmium and lead in them. Wasn't a problem back home in England where the kiln was pretty much outside, but when he came to Canada, with the closed up houses, barns and workshops, the fumes near put paid to him and his family. Upside...killed his infestation of bed bugs....

  8. How brilliant to see Renoir in action and talking animatedly with his assistants. Excellent. Thank you for posting it.

    I have osteo-arthritis in my feet, ankles and knees and tend to lock up if I stand in one place for too long - shame, given my preferred method of working standing up and being rigorous about having a single viewpoint! I had both carpal tunnels relived some years ago and now suffer very few problems with hands/fingers. So far my eyes are OK (with spectacles) and I've now got very used to varifocals with observational drawing (although I have to be wary of introducing distortions into the drawings). I also have to be very conscious of how I'm sitting at a PC these days to avoid fairly severe neck and back pain (I hate getting older!).

    I'm currently trying to gather material for an article for Talking Point as I've had several conversations recently with CP artists who are giving themselves a range of (sometimes severe) physical problems due to the "forensic" and lengthy nature of most CP art.

    I hope your eye ops go well and that you're back to doing more of your own work soon.

    1. Malcolm - I'd be very happy to contribute to this as I do think there's a lot of stuff people need to be aware of BEFORE they develop problems.

      I've also got very severe problems linked to a connective tissue disorder which means I'm unable to grip right with my hands and standing on my feet is a big problem (because of destruction to soft tissue in feet and ankles due to falls and tears). There are always ways round problems - and you do learn to live with things - including pain. However I'd love to have known how to protect myself from further damage before it was incurred and before one learns how to live with pain!

  9. i suffered a stroke 5 years ago (aged 43) and am still paralyzed on my right side... i'm learning to draw/paint/craft left-handed...
    also my hubbie had his eye lenses replaced 10 years - it has transformed his vision! sending you good, healing thoughts as you prepare for your surgery... :)

    1. Thanks Claire - all the reports of people having good sight after the replacement of lenses makes me feel better!

      Best wishes for your achievement of better mobility of your right side.

  10. Thankyou so much for this post. I also suffer from sever Rheumotoid Arthritis, since I was 44. I have also had to adapt my work methods and spread out my art time to small manageable chunks. This post has inspired me.
    I look forward to seeing your posts on how your 'new eyes' effect your work.

    1. Thanks Shirley. Spacing out effort does appear to be a major tip for all those who struggle with arthritis.

      So do you think you might take up juggling? ;)

  11. Hi, thank you for this beautiful post. I suffer from chronic eye strain, my eyes actually spasm they are so messed up. The joints in my hands are deteriorating too. To see the joy and focus which Renoir held in this video makes me determined not to waste my life dwelling upon my limitations. I wish you the very best of luck with your operation.



  12. Katherine, thank you! I also hate taking the amount and type of painkillers I take BUT I have tried to give them up/try alternatives many times and I literally cannot move without them. I have to accept that although they may be slowly damaging me, my quality of life is so much improved by taking them, so, for me, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages.

  13. I had this operation done several years ago with a week between because I was extremely short-sighted.This week was spent listening and watching with one eye. Thought I could use my old glasses with just the one lens but this left me dizzy and unable to move. I asked the surgeon why he could not just give me 20/20 vision when he was at it. He laughed and told me my brain was going to have enough to cope with!
    It took me quite a long time to cope with the changes but getting back clear sight made up for the slight ajustments that my brain had to make. Got a bit black and blue from hitting door frames is all! The op. itsself is quite a visual experience just wait and see..better than any kaleidoscope.
    Best luck

  14. There is a gallery in Edinburgh that supports disabled artists - .
    Personally I have more chronic conditions than I am happy to talk about. However, I am hoping to have surgery on my painting shoulder some time soon so that I can lift my arm high enough to use an easel. It is scary - so best wishes and hope it all goes well.

  15. Katherine,
    It's a credit to you for all you do accomplish with health issues.
    I know because I grew up with a Dad who had Multiple Sclerosis most of his adult life and he refused to give in. He was a Department Chairman and taught full time job at a college, did freelance work, restored cars and had five kids.
    It really IS all about willpower as the stories in your post also illustrate.

    Many times we thought he was going to lose control of the left side of his body. Without complaint he simply taught himself to write, draw and paint with his right hand just in case (he was left-handed).
    Artwork done with his left hand he always signed with his last name. Artwork done with his right hand he signed with his first name.

    When he was in a wheel chair he decided NO and pushed himself to get out of it and keep walking.
    He put away the wheel chair and never looked back.

    Myself and siblings have been fortunate. We haven't any real problems, like his, other than usual age-related ailments.
    Never give up.

  16. Your description of cataracts and childhood eye exams is strangely familiar Katherine - I had congenital cataracts as a child and was effectively blind for a few months whilst waiting for surgery. I was one of the first patients to have them removed at Moorfields when I was 7 using the method now common but very new in the mid '70s, in fact some of my op was on tv though I couldn't see it at the time!
    I couldn't have replacement lenses then and rely on contacts and glasses to correct my vision now, but it is by no means perfect. I think it's no coincidence that my artwork is quite large, high contrast and usually monochrome or subdued in colour. An insightful art college tutor once wondered if my vision problems had led to my strong desire to draw what I saw.
    I hope all goes well with your surgery and you are able to benefit from it quickly. It will certainly change the way you see the world - I recommend Oliver Sacks' book 'The Mind's Eye' once the fog has cleared!

  17. Many thanks Tansy.

    I'm just wondering with the miracles of modern technology whether they could maybe improve matters for you now?

  18. Perhaps Katherine, I'm told it would be possible to have lens implants now but at the moment the risks of more surgery outweigh the benefits. Not sure how I'd cope with everything having sharp edges either.

  19. You had me worried as soon as I read your comment

    I of course automatically assumed that the sharp edges were in the eyes - and not the paintings.

    Neurotic about eyes or what?

  20. Not neurotic, any adult would be worried about eye surgery. People said I was brave as a child but I was just too young to know any different, we think too much as adults.

  21. Thank you so much for this article, Katherine. I had seen the film of Renoir, but had not seen the article. It's wonderfully informative. I also have Rheumatoid, mainly in my hands and shoulders, and so have had to adapt some of my artistic pursuits because of that.

    I am sorry to hear of the problems you have with the connective tissue disease (my mom had scleroderma)...and I wish you all the very best with your cataract surgery!

  22. Katherine, best wishes for successful surgeries and a speedy recovery. You’re an inspiration to many artists and we’ll surely miss you even if for a short time.
    This was a wonderful post!opercen

  23. I have a feeling you are not receiving my comments as I have posted a few recently - 2 on who painted this and one for this post and none of them have appeared.

  24. Jacqui - I don't remember seeing an earlier comment on this topic on the blog - and I've checked and there's nothing waiting to moderate. Maybe you commented on Facebook?

    With the "Who painted this?" posts, the comments are never published if correct until the following Friday. That way the competition stays live to all those who are participating. I know I've published comments by you for this.

  25. Sending you best wishes and positive energy! May you get back to your passion of making art asap :)

  26. I've got cataracts developing in both eyes, but so far they are not too serious. (Except ironically enough the Captcha images required to post - I always have problems with them)

    I've got various joint related problems in my knees and ankles which severely limit my mobility so I have to either stay close to the car or work from photographs. Getting up onto the moors in Yorkshire and Northumberland, my favourite places in the world, is simply no longer possible. Plus my wife has MS so I need to stay close to home unless I can arrange cover.

    In the end though you persevere - in my case my art has become based on memory and more and more abstract.

  27. This blog entry is a great reminder to focus on strengths rather than weaknesses. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about your situation and I wish you good health and quick healing.

  28. I also have somewhat of a disability, though never think of myself as disabled. I have a hand tremor in both hands, but more so in my left (Left Handed). I gave up drawing for about 20 years but started up again in 2009. I have found natural ways to minmize the tremors.
    Sorry to hear about your vision problems, I hope the surgery works out for you.



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