Blind Sight

This one is about making art blind….. 

Everyone knew my vision was inferior. By nine years of age, untreated astigmatism and farsightedness had made my eyes cross. I got my first pair of eyeglasses the same month that I rode a runaway bicycle down a long hill at my cousin’s house in Silver Spring, Maryland that sloped down at thirty degrees toward a six lane highway and, unaccustomed to the torque required to make pedal brakes effective at that speed and angle, I thought better of coasting into oncoming traffic and instead steered the bike into a telephone pole or a tree, which snapped my free fall in half as well as my front tooth and enough blood vessels to coat my face and shirt in red. In the intervening months before a dentist could put on a crown, the crossed eyes, black triangle in my mouth, and the hexagonal plastic eyeglass frames that kept slipping off my flat nose bridge (only expensive metal frames have ‘feet’ that can be molded to fit a nose) induced a Cubist sensation of my own face. My eyes seemed to migrate, not fully under my control, their muscles rehearsing new tasks under the discipline of the lenses. I worried that they pulsed visibly inside their sockets, some days bulging, some days shriveling, always asymmetric. Wonder Woman! the school photographer shouted, so I would smile for my yearbook picture.

Unknown to me, I was also colorblind. Despite regular optometrist exams, a couple of outpatient eye surgeries, and the phalanx of visual tests that accompanied them , no one bothered to tell me about this diagnosis. Hence the maddening sense of deficiency when I could not find enough birds teasing me from tree canopies to earn a bird watching badge in Girl Scouts. And the inexplicable headache that muddy colors – ochres, tans, mauves – gave me when other people cooed over them. The substantial fraction of the world that presented itself in small pixels, in orange next to Kelly green, blues next to purples, or pale pastels was elusive and mysterious. Sometimes I chose not to care, squinting my eyes to deliberately blur it all and wallow in my impressionist view of life. Other times I faked it, estimating what I could and using color labels that other people suggested. Other people knew what reality was; I merely approximated. I don’t think I see things the way other people see them, I confided to my first boyfriend.

My art lacked discipline. I didn’t have my older brother’s talent. He filled sketchbooks with swift charcoal and ink drawings with classical proportions, perspective, and detail. He sculpted and designed furniture. And he painted portraits and murals. I watched him channeling my grandfather’s small, sure hands and sharp eye. I, on the other hand, could not make representational art of any kind. What I perceived and tried to translate came through combinations of specific lenses – one for circles, one for zig-zags, one each for other shapes, another for shades of blue and other true colors – that filtered out blurry details I had no use for or could not replicate with precision. Where there were concrete stairs I saw a dragon’s teeth in neon yellow. On our summer trip through Europe, the rolling hills in Ireland where sheep freely wandered were just a monochromatic, pulsing sea of tufted pillows, a different color each day that we hiked, purple, dark pine, fiery red. I vigorously drew them over and over again in heavy oil pastels, one page for each color and day. Wow, that’s a lot of color; what’s it supposed to be? David and my mother asked.

For this and other reasons, my mother did not wait for me to choose my own clothes. I was a reflection on her and not to be trusted with color or fashion sense. From puberty on, she strode through my closet and bureau, and then her own each school night, piecing together a suitable outfit that she then laid at the foot of my bed. If I dared to ignore it in the morning, she tailed me through breakfast with the neglected skirt or blouse, berating me for my ingratitude and lack of judgment, extolling the virtues of her selection compared to whatever beggar’s scrap I happened to be wearing. She favored browns, tans, mauves and pastels, every one of which made my eyes twitch and recoil. If it had to be dark it should be navy or black. Skirts hung below the knees, and anything matchy-matchy won the day. What’s the matter with you that you don’t like this one? It’s perfect and you look good in that color. My father rarely liked the results. You’re making her look like an old woman. But he seemed ambivalent about letting me decide for myself. Since I found nothing to like about my proportions or appearance, it was easy to sink into faded, ripped jeans and flannel shirts, when I could get away with it. There was no romance; the jeans weren’t tight or sexy and the flannel evoked truck driver rather than Gap dancers. For emphasis, I sometimes added a baseball cap. It all looked like a puddle of brown to me anyway.

Everyone gave me clothes. My mother had the advantage on shopping. We lived in a car bound neighborhood and I couldn’t drive. She, on the other hand, could walk out of her office in West Philly to the chain stores that catered to the college crowd, or split her commute home and stop in Wannamaker’s department store in Center City. She bought clothes for me faster than I could refuse them. I began inheriting hand-me-downs from the four corners of the earth – from older cousins, from Faye, my mother. You are so lucky to get all these good things. I had trouble judging the value of things I hadn’t spent money on or time choosing, so I didn’t. I accepted, as a part of life, that sometimes we wear clothes of colors that make our eyes hurt, because they are good clothes and someone gave them to us. It was normal to be uncomfortable with the color over your own skin.

Momma, why do your feet look like that and Daddy’s don’t? the boys ask, pointing to my bunions. Because when I was little, Ba Ngoai and other people told me my shoe size was 6, and when I wore shoes that size, they bent my feet the wrong way. Why? Because I’m actually a size 6-and-a-half, sometimes even a seven, I hiss.

It wasn’t until after college graduation, when I could no longer deny the strain of having foregone glasses for several years that an optometrist walked me through all the evidence of the density of my colorblindness.

David realized that this explained a lot. He conducted his own field tests. What color are traffic lights? Red, yellow, and white. No, they’re red, yellow, and green. That light is white, I insisted. We just agree to call it green because we all know green means ‘go,’ but green must be too expensive for municipalities to use, so they use white and call it green. He erupted at me as we trawled parking garages looking for a space. You’re going the wrong way! How would I know that’s the wrong way? Because there are green arrows and orange arrows! To you there are! Somewhere, I dreamed, was an island where I was right and they were wrong, where small pixels and light pink are banned (it looks gray to me) and public signage is strictly limited to black, blues and yellows.

In my own house, I began to indulge a craving for large fields of color. I bought canvases taller and wider than me to prop against fences in the backyard or parks for the children’s birthday parties. We put out old adult T-shirts for them to use as aprons, a dozen brushes, and non-toxic glitter and poster paint. When we tired of looking at their scrawls several months later, I painted over them, slapping the canvas with large brushes and strokes. I aimed for the colors that mattered, sharp, saturated, pure hues with the round mouth feel of chocolate, heavy cream, and ripe fruit. No pansy pastels. The poster paint cracked from weeks exposed to sun and radiator heat, and punched through my acrylic as squirming creatures in a primordial ocean of red, blue, and is it sage or gray? I hung this Rothko-esque affair in the living room and apologetically explained its origins whenever guests commented on it. Put it in the show, my friend Phoebe ordered as we were planning the first art auction fundraiser for the boys’ school. It sold for seven hundred dollars, a fluke purchase by a generous guest. I was too embarrassed to ask him what he saw in it.

I developed a habit of painting in Phoebe’s basement studio. A graphic designer, she has glammed it with an open concrete floor on which paint mishaps merely add patina, flexible lighting, and design toys to die for. I take my first, best shot at filling each blank canvas, and then Phoebe ‘corrects’ my colors, by raising an eyebrow or shuttling a tube of paint across the floor with her foot. Sweetie, that’s brown, not green. She taught me rudimentary color theory, the things that non-colorblind people intuit. Magenta and yellow make orange. You lie. Really? Sometimes I brought the boys, who took turns spewing paint at the canvas through wide straws, or stamping it with small round things we found around the basement.

It’s a very productive collaboration, I explained to the jeweler at a Santa Fe street fair who had a similar color palate to mine. She was wrapping a necklace I had just bought of antique copper and translucent stones in citron, forest green, and periwinkle. After we’re done painting, we raid Phoebe’s accordion files for beautiful old paper scraps, to embellish the canvases, I tell her. The jeweler’s husband stared at me incredulously. Ditch the help! he hissed urgently, Paint your own colors!

They say that Cezanne and Renoir’s far-sightedness account for the loss of detail in their work when viewed up close. Monet developed nuclear cataracts that make colors appear washed out and cast them in a yellowish hue, so that the work in his later years shifted from whites, greens, and blues to reds and yellows. He never experienced them as other people did; the reds were pink to him and yellow a stand-in for anything pale. How did he understand it when other people paid money to see the world the way he did, to own the product of his deficient vision?

I took a staycation from work in late January, after a stressful report deadline had passed.

“I’m going to find Tibet right here in Washington,” I promised Blue. “I’ve always wanted to go Tibet.”

I announced my intentions to staff in the office. I set up the auto response email to alert correspondents to my relative absence. I begged off speaking engagements. From home, I could field a handful of conference calls and draft the next looming report that was due in a month in relative peace. I floated from bed to laptop to shower and back again in pajamas and slippers. I watched snow fall, masking my route to the Metro and imposing another layer of insulation from work. My neck spasms calmed down to a dull ache.

Blue threw his notebook aside in exasperation and with a snarl that made me jump, “Mai, I’m listening to you and I’m thinking this is the worst Tibet I have ever seen. How about a weekend away in a hotel? Or even an hour long massage? If you can finish an analysis and sixty page report with a team of twelve people in three organizations in a month, can you handle the logistics of one of these?”

With some effort, I closed the laptop for a weekend. I trawled boutiques on U Street and Florida Avenue just as they opened at midday Sunday. Other people venturing out in the cold wanted brunch; I wanted shoes. In a basement shop with an early ‘end of season’ sale, I found blue and pink sneakers with the flavor of a batik’ed pair of Keds, suede sport shoes of the sort that metropolitan mothers of a certain age wear to look hip, punched red leather Mary Jane pumps, and then I saw them. A pair of orange leather boots with square toes and wedge heels that would work equally well for sledding or stomping in while swishing a skirt. Three hundred dollars on shoes! David was breathless. Nobody needs more than two pairs of shoes, my friend Heather sniped. But they were all size 6.5 or 7, and I needed them all. I see Tibet was good, Blue said approvingly, gesturing to the orange boots. Very cool.

David bought my second painting for a thousand dollars. It was a five-foot tall portrait of

MBNP cropped1

Blue in circles and lines. I titled it Matte Blue No Purple because I knew there was purple in it – I watched myself mix the magenta and the cyan – but I couldn’t see it on the canvas. I wanted to keep it instead of making the donation to the auction. No! Phoebe scolded, Blue sells and you promised to give it! Make another one just like it for yourself. Two shapes, four colors, you can do it! But I knew better than to try. So David had to bid and win it back. I saw my father standing in front of it in our living room, arching his neck to scan up to its rim, two feet above his head, trying to see what the other bidders saw in it.

I thought I’d break out into three dimensions and went on a shopping spree with Alexander to the hardware store. At home, we arrayed our haul of washers, chrome steamer baskets, nuts, delicate aluminum piping, and beautiful copper faucet parts on the floor between our splayed legs. We made jewelry, combining the hardware bits willy-nilly with random beads and colored wires. Some days, I decided to forego my shoddy draftsman skills altogether, and wielded scissors instead of a brush, building paper sculptures that erupted upward and out from cheap IKEA shadow box frames.

At my children’s elementary school, the art auction committee’s strategy had evolved into this: They would solicit as many art donations as they could, then assess what types of pieces they still needed one month before the gala, and then Phoebe and I would make them. I raised a couple thousand dollars that way each year. I keep track of who wins each piece, watching all the bidders throughout the party, and am grateful that the paintings haven’t strayed far outside the neighborhood.

I opened all the closets in the house with any clothes of mine. They were full of other people’s choices, respectable expensive brands from chain stores in suburban malls. Some of the hand-me-downs from my cousins were pristine with their original tags. I spent one day on each closet. I pulled out the clothes one piece at a time and built three piles. Easy Rejects made the highest pile. The Maybe pile was substantial but largely migrated into Rejects after a day’s reflection. The others I put back on hangers after a more thorough vetting. I felt the fabric with my eyes closed, stared with my eyes open to gauge if the colors were satisfying or merely tolerable, then actually put it on and strutted in front of the mirror, feeling the weight and flow on my shoulders and limbs, eyeing whether it make my neck and legs look longer. After three days, the floor of the study was covered in piles and my closets rattled with the echo of free, clashing hangers. What do you want me to do with these? My mother asked about the piles. Can you take them and give them away? I told her.

Think. How to do this efficiently without driving around town every weekend? Online, I sought out quirky brands I might have seen in the Style section of the paper or on the label of a friend’s tunic. I put ten items in my ‘shopping cart’ on one website and carefully selected two of them to buy, I told Blue. Why not all ten? he asked. That would be a lot of money. David’s not comfortable with that, and we’re pretty anti-consumerist. He pressed his lips together in a tight straight line.

I plumbed ebay’s search functions. I could browse for a type of clothing, or type in a designer label. I could search vintage finds by their decade of origin. I could skirt the frustration of being outbid on popular brands by using common misspellings as search terms. Or type in a description just specific enough to net something unique….leather trim fishtail skirt….blue Peter Pan blazer, avant garde belt. I became an ebay taxonomist, swooping from high end couture culled from estate sales to one-off pieces from Indie designers, collecting useful, synonymatic terms like resin, acrylic, and Lucite while searching for vintage jewelry. I bought a shocking number of bright orange things – scarves, a patent leather tote bag, cropped pants, good-girl shirts with cap sleeves, and slinky see-through tank tops.

My mother hovered as I bundled long scarves in poppy and tangerine colored silk into my purple and red trench coat like an overexcited cravat. That’s too orange. You can’t see that because you’re colorblind, she warned. I keyed in winning auction bids right through David’s alarm at and our arguments over my sudden change in spending habits. Think of it as shopping spread out over the past twenty years, I suggested, but all he could focus on was the annualized amount at my current rate of indulgence. My girlfriends grew jealous and frustrated because I rarely spent more than thirty dollars on any one piece. Where do you find the time to do that? they ask. It’s not hard when you know what you like, I say.

My closets bulged and I culled some of the earlier finds, feeling more confident of my choices. Dude, I said to Blue, You should advertise that you encourage shopping therapy. They will line up at your door! I set aside the most special wins to use more often – a necklace of clear, peacock blue Lucite cubes and copper links, a Mad Hatter pair of thin beige cotton pants slathered with large, thick black rings like a chorus of open mouths, a lined skirt of gauze awash in Impressionist yellows, blues, and greens with a four-inch hem covered in rows and rows of sequins that someone had brilliantly sewn upside down to show off their demure, matte taupe underbellies.

The steady conquests rubbed off on my mother. She adjusted quickly, learning to avoid florals and instead bringing me pert finds like an embossed red patent leather purse and black furry mittens. She rummaged through my vintage necklaces for something dainty to borrow, and tried on the shoes that were too small for me.

I asked Benjamin and Alexander to vote on accessories to round out my outfits. They were eager to help, smug in their superior sense of color. Together, we stared at my final reflection in the floor length mirror in the foyer.

“Why do you keep buying different clothes and jewelry and trying them on?” they asked.

“Because I’m painting myself and I like doing it with you,” I told them.

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