Until recently, I could never have been an artist. My chronic short sight would have been beyond correction. Without glasses, my focal point lies, with my left eye firmly shut to let my right one see, at the tip of my nose. I would have been, as was recently pointed out to me, fully dependent on others, a beggar if I had been poor.
But I was born in a century where my sight could be treated, and I’ve been able to live as a painter for thirty years. After a recent emergency visit to an optometrist away from home (where I heard those grim historical observations), it occurred to me this would be a good time to thank the professionals who have tended to my eyes over the years. They are my collaborators in the creation of over two thousand paintings. Thanks to them I feel I’ve never worked a day in my life. With their help, I’ve achieved my hopes of being an artist since the day I left college.
The first visit I recall clearly was to Ellis and Killpartrick in Bath, England. I was being fitted for my first contact lenses. Before then I had worn perennially broken and taped-together National Health glasses. I collided with as many people playing cricket as I did in rugby. Finally, for the sake of everyone’s safety, I was told to just run around the pitches for the duration of the games. I didn’t mind, and perhaps the loneliness of Sillitoe’s hero was good preparation for a solitary career ahead.
I remember frustrating the doctor with my inability to put in the contact lenses. After a full hour of my efforts, he came back in and sighed heavily. “Let’s try another way,” he suggested, “Put them in the corner of your eye and sort of move them across.” I never learned to improve upon this laborious morning ritual.
I also remember the receptionist there. Before my exam, it had been her job to do some minor test on my eyes. She was very pretty and I was very shy, but the procedure required having to look into her eyes for some time. Some years later, I wrote a light poem about it. (Below).
In Atlanta, an optician at the mall exclaimed that I had a ‘doozy of a prescription’. In Birmingham, Alabama, the UAB School of Optometry was more professional. In the little town of Franklin, North Carolina, Dr. Darryl Gossett looked after my eyes for nearly twenty years. We would chat about my art and he and his wife’s avid pursuit of dancing.
Every few years I would switch to a new pair of glasses, and there was always my capsized hope that technology had advanced to the point where the new lenses would somehow be thinner. Fat chance. The myopic do not strut the catwalk of any season’s optical fashion. My spectacles would turn up like craft fair jewelry- those heavy, clear stones one sees, barely netted in delicate wire.
I kept visiting Dr. Gossett long after I had moved a hundred miles away to Asheville, and I still regret that practicality required I find something closer. My new doctor is very experienced, though, and part of a team not likely to exclaim at the magnitude of my prescription. In Franklin, the waiting room was small and quiet, with a video of waterfalls. In Asheville, the waiting room is much larger, with patients seated in different areas for different doctors. Some are there due to serious injury or illness that threatens their eyesight- a reminder to be thankful.
I got a new pair of glasses there recently, and we risked a slightly larger, circular frame. Both the lady who fitted me and myself were pleasantly surprised. “These actually look pretty good!” I exclaimed, looking in the mirror, “I mean, of course, they still make my head look like an hourglass.” We both smiled at the inevitability of the latter. My son says they are Harry Potter glasses. In a recent drawing he did of me he kindly suggested my lenses merely shrink my eyes into tiny, manic circles.
I wake up each morning and celebrate the fact nothing has ‘detached’ through the night. I paint with a certain urgency that makes for braver paintings, and hope that if I have to switch to another form of creativity I can adopt Epictetus’ stoic attitude- ‘Never say of anything, “I lost it,” but say, “I gave it back.” Although I actually love abstraction, I joke that ‘if my eyesight gets too bad, I can always become an abstract painter’.
Treatment recommended that my vision was never corrected to absolute perfect sight, but this has been a gift for me as a landscape painter, where too much detail is often a hindrance, and many artists have to squint to slightly blur their vision the better to see tonal values.
Together, my eye doctors and I have painted the Scottish Highlands, the South of France and my native Somerset; the Texas border, the coast of Maine and Louisiana bayous; hidden waterfalls and rivers of Appalachia; vanishing architecture from Charleston to the Delta; state fairs, wrestlers and flea markets; murder ballads, Low Country mermaids and a Napoleonic countess lost in 19th century Alabama. Thank you all for such a journey.
The Optometrist’s Assistant (1992)
Beyond the glass there must have passed
A thin parade of us: the blind girl-blinded
Men and lads who slowed in hopes
To see her there.
For in that floral waiting room
She’d knelt at each of us in her allotted task
Of minor examination.
‘Just look into my eye,” she smiled
(At least Helen of Troy pretty),
Fiddling with something in periphery.
But those were lovely eyes and opened
Wide and long enough to pass both shy
“Try not to blink if you can help it, please”
And science to reach at last
That hard and yielding place- of quartz
Intimation and perfect tension
Between each dumb and eloquent circle,
Of black and gold assent beyond those dusted lids.
“Nearly done now, only the right one left.”
And when she stood among the frames
And magazines and made a show of aching knees
(As if to say, ‘My life’s the same as yours. Please,
Don’t overrate this mythological face.’)
I took her cue, knew not to meet her eye again
Or make our sacred moment known
By stopping fully at the glass.
I even knew, in retrospect,
She wore the latest tint- a better
Than blue blue, and loved that, too.