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In Her Mind's Eye

Editor's Note: Reprinted from People Magazine - October 15, 2001

An uncommon disorder robbed Lisa Fittipaldi of her vision and her will to live---until she discovered her talent for painting

For two years after a rare autoimmune disease left her suddenly blind, Lisa Fittipaldi would wake up each morning, open her eyes and turn toward her bedroom window. And then, she says, "it would dawn on me, like a bucket of ice being dumped on my head, that I could no longer see. I'd immediately go into a funk.

To try to lift her spirits ("I worried she felt her life was over"), Fittipaldi's husband, Al, encouraged her to find a hobby, to reach out to friends--all to no avail. Finally, one day in 1995, after learning that psychologists often recommend art as therapy for depression, he brought home a set of watercolors. "I threw them at her and said,

'I don't care what you do--just do something!'" he recalls. Stung by what she felt was Al's insensitivity, Fittipaldi, who had never even drawn before, presented him hours later with a picture of four colored glass jars, images she drew on from memory. "I did it," she says, "just to shut him up." But the piece, recalls Al, "was really good." So good, he encouraged Lisa to join a friend who had signed up for a two-week art-instruction class at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, La. There, Fittipaldi, now 53, learned basic painting techniques as well as strategies for memorizing her palettes and creating out- lines. She has been painting ever since, and in 1998, Al sent out press packets with samples of her work to art galleries, catching the attention of Dallas's Florence Art Gallery. At her first show, held there in 1998, she sold all 14 of her works, netting more than $20,000. Her paintings, primarily watercolors and oils, now hang in more than 30 galleries nationwide.

"When customers learn she's blind, the reaction is, 'Oh, my God. I can't believe it,'" says Michael O'Mahoney, owner of the Miami - based Wentworth Gallery, which has sold 40 of Fittipaldi's paintings at prices up to $10,000. But, he adds, "her work stands on it's own."

To compensate for things she cannot see, Fittipaldi relies on her other senses. By listening to what's going on around her, for example, she can imagine street scenes and portraits. As for depicting facial expressions, she says, "I just know, based on the mental picture I have, whether the details are coming out right." Says Douglas Walton, her former art instructor: "She captures the true inner spirit more than most sighted artists. She paints from the heart."

"When you lose your vision, you lose your world," she says. "My painting re-created my world."

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