Suzanne Gibson is a painter who has owned and operated Rivers Edge Studio and Gallery in New Brighton, Pennsylvania for the past 4 years. She began losing her sight about 6 years ago due to Stargardt disease, which has caused her to lose most of her central vision.
Lynda Lambert is an exhibiting artist and retired arts and humanities professor from Geneva College. She is a member of the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh and Group A at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (PCA). Lynda lost most of her vision 5 years ago due to Ischemic Optic Neuropathy, a stroke-like condition.
Suzanne and Lynda are planning an upcoming exhibition of their recent work, “Vision: REvision” which will debut March 7, 2014 at the Merrick Art Gallery in New Brighton. The show will travel to six locations over two years and be accompanied by a book explaining their stories and artistic process.
Both women sat down with me to share their stories of finding new ways to make art after vision loss, and the many positive and surprising aspects of this creative journey.
Interview by Kirsten Ervin.
When did you start making things?
Suzanne: I made art very early on. I had very supportive parents and our house had a painting done by my great grandfather. I went to school for commercial art and gleaned any information I could about other artists and art, anything I could get my hands on. I’ve usually worked as a realist painter, in acrylics.
Lynda: As a small child I made potholders and sold them in my neighborhood, using the money I made to make more potholders! My mom taught me embroidery and I taught myself how to knit. I have both a BFA and MFA in Painting and studied with Akiko Kotani (PCA’s 2013 Artist of the Year).
I’ve always made fiber art, weaving and also made enormous paintings and giant prints from woodcuts. I was always working in a few genres at a time and having those disciplines feed each other. I’ve always worked in a series.
Describe your visual impairment:
Suzanne: I have Stargardt Disease, which blocks my central vision. I look at things with my peripheral vision, and I’m not always sure I’m seeing things correctly.
Lynda: I have Ischemic Optic Neuropathy, which is a stroke-like condition. I lost my eyesight almost instantly about 5 years ago. I lost the vision in my right eye and then, 10 months later, I lost the vision in my left eye. Even if I had been in a doctor’s office, there was nothing anyone could have done to save my eyesight.
How has your art changed since vision loss?
Lynda: I began with fiber art as a child and it’s come full circle. I work now almost entirely by touch. I paint with a thread and needle. I use a CCTV (Closed Circuit Television) purely for the placement of the needle, but otherwise, I work by touch.
My vision loss is the greatest blessing in my life, because it forced me to see things so much clearer – the essence of a thing, to not be distracted by how things appear.
But, I wouldn’t have chosen my vision loss and when it happened, it was stunning.
With the help I received at BVRS (Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh), I learned there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do, other than drive. I could look at anything and figure out the tools and methods to make things work.
Suzanne: My work has become much more abstracted and I use color in a much different way to emphasize mood and depth. I had to find another way to make my art. It forced me to think about what I was painting for, “How do I get you to feel what I want you to feel?” I feel I’m now doing the best art I’ve ever done; other people say it’s the best work I’ve ever done. It has taught me a lot artistically because I have to think about the essence of something without the detail. Less is more.
I was inspired by an exhibit I saw of John Bramblitt’s artwork. He’s a totally blind artist, who paints with raised edges. I use a CCTV, a specialized camera on a movable arm that enlarges images to place onto a large screen monitor. I work from photos and select a small portion at a time. I am learning to check myself far less and trust myself more.
What are your hopes for your art show, Vision/Revision?
Suzanne: We want to share our positive story, to show that life is not over. Find a way to keep doing what you love to do, just re-think it. Don’t give up and hide.
Lynda: With the right help, we were able to continue our creative lives. My goal has always been to be an exhibiting artist. It took me about five years to get back to where I was, but I got there. I’m a member of Associated Artists, of Group A. My mixed media fiber work was just juried into the upcoming exhibition “The New Collective” that will open at PCA in November. Most people don’t know I’m blind, they see my work first and respond positively.
Suzanne: As a gallery owner, people see your work, Lynda, and say how beautiful it is. When I tell them you are blind, they are astounded. Our show will say as much to people who can see as to people who can’t.