You might think that failing eyesight would destroy an artist’s career, not to mention morale. But for the late British painter Sargy Mann, it freed him.
Diagnosed with cataracts in the early 1970s when he was in his thirties, he had to work much harder than most artists to see the details of his subjects. But as his eyesight declined, his artistic vision grew. As he put it in notes for a talk he gave before his death in 2015,
If you look at the real world in front of you as intensely and as freely from visual preconceptions as you can and try to record as truthfully as you can what that experience is, you will in time see more, see better.
Mann completed his final paintings in total blindness. Eleanor Birne at the LRB has more. What drew me to this story, though, was the notion of being able to “describe” a place we cannot see. Our other senses are more powerful than we think, but they tend to play second fiddle to our eyesight. And we don’t often think about how what we “see” with our eyes–the things our brain focuses on and interprets–is not simply unbiased reality, but reality interpreted through our lenses of culture, language, beliefs and personal experience. Sargy Mann’s failing eyesight weakened his “visual preconceptions” and made possible his best art.
Mann’s art also encourages thought about our sense of place. How well do you know your neighborhood? If you suddenly went blind, how well could you picture it in your mind’s eye? What are some of the things that stand out? What seems to be missing? And if instead of sudden blindness failing eyesight slowly took hold, what would you do now to try to know your neighborhood more intimately?
Go do it. Fill those blank spots in the mental map of your neighborhood. Nurture the connections.
Photo: Black Windows, Sargy Mann, 2006, Oil on canvas, 54 x 80 in. © The Estate of Sargy Mann
This post is especially about awareness, and so best fits in the teal-colored portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.