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Watercolouring Outside The Lines

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted with permission from Dialogue Magazine, Winter, 2003.

Photo: Lisa Fittipaldi surrounded by paints and brushes, seemingly deep in thought, creating art.

What's the most appropriate gift for an adult depressed about sudden vision loss? According to Lisa Fittipaldi, it's a child's watercolour set.

Fittipaldi's husband heard art could help his wife who was suffering from depression, so he picked up some paints at Wal-Mart hoping to get her out of bed. He tossed them at her and challenged her to paint something.

"I thought my husband was being very insensitive giving me the watercolour set," Fittipaldi recalls. "It made me very angry." But she used her anger as fuel and painted a still life of four glass jars, mostly to shut him up and prove his notion was ridiculous. Her painting was good though, and her depression began to abate.

"Painting gave me a challenge and a reason to change," she explains. "It gave me, and still does, an intellectual stimulation to adapt and try new things.

Every time someone told me it was impossible to learn to paint without technology or external references, I would say, and still do, 'You may be right, but let me try it first.'"

That attitude ultimately freed her from depression, which began a decade ago. While driving home from her job as a CPA, Fittipaldi watched as the road in front of her disappeared. Her vision returned in a few seconds, but two weeks later she experienced the same thing. This time, her sight didn't return. She had lost her vision to vasculitis, a disorder which inflames blood vessels, blocking circulation to tissues and organs. She lost her sight, her job and her hope, but after two years of despair, she discovered a new path through painting.

By accepting her husband's challenge, she took her first step on that path. Her next step was to devise methods for painting as a blind person. She uses her memory to help her paint what she can no longer see. Her paints are organized alphabetically and she arranges her palette by placing red in the centre with yellow and blue on either side. She marks the edge near blue with a clothespin.

When she began painting, she relied on grids made of string and rows of staples to orient her to the canvas. She studied art by visiting museums, listening to numerous books on tape, and practicing the techniques she learned. Eventually, she could visualize her subjects well enough that the staples and string grids were no longer necessary.

"My techniques change every time I change a series of paintings," Fittipaldi explains. "I painted in watercolours for five years, and then two years ago I began in oils. Watercolours are opposite to oils in method and application. Watercolours dry faster, and I can feel the difference in the primary colours. When you paint in watercolours, the paper absorbs the paint and the texture of the paper changes with the colour application. Watercolour paper is stretched onto a wooden board and stapled to this board, providing a painting surface as well as a textural grid. In oil I cannot detect the colour difference; the canvas has no mechanical references and, if I put my fingers onto the surface, my fingers would erase, or at least change, what I had painted. It's the ultimate example of 'painting blind,' definitely a challenge in patience and personal trust."

Painting in oils isn't her only challenge. "Gallery owners refused to take my artwork for several reasons. They did not think it would sell, although this is not true and I have sold almost everything I have ever painted. They did not like the fact that each work I created was different. They did not want to be accused of taking advantage of the disabled. Before the articles in the press, I had many more galleries handling my work."

A couple years ago, the media's onslaught peaked and Fittipaldi struggled with it. "After the publicity, my sales of artwork dropped for about eight months, and we received calls wanting personal articles and money," she recalls. "They would come to the bed and breakfast we own at all hours of the day and night and want to pray over me, or ask me for money or want me to sign their magazine copy. No calls, just show up at 2:00 a.m. Now things are back to normal."

Fittipaldi can concentrate on painting again and is ever improving her methods. She and her husband visit galleries and discuss what he sees; studying the masters helps her learn better techniques. They also read art books together. She works on half a dozen paintings at a time. One vignette might show a man relaxing on a bench in Scotland; another depicts a woman practicing ballet. Some buyers find them less collectable because they are so unique, but there are many others who buy them for that very reason. Her talent and willingness to adapt have made her a success in the art world.

Fittipaldi is convinced other blind and visually impaired people can succeed in the art world, too. "I think art is a personal experience and that it is possible to succeed on many levels," she says. "You do not have to sell art to be a success if the doing of the art provides a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. I do not use technology except for Word and a speech program, but I understand that others have used more advanced technology to enter the fields of web design, graphic arts, journalism, photography, etc. and these are certainly forms of art. Then, of course, there are the more traditional forms of sculpture, music and ceramics, which have always been open to the blind and visually impaired and which have the possibility of providing an income as well as satisfaction."

Her paintings give her satisfaction and a healthy income, but she also runs a bed and breakfast with her husband from their south Texas home; she fluffs pillows, socializes with guests and bakes muffins. She keeps a well-ordered kitchen so she can sail through her morning routine. And she established a non-profit organization, which provides mainstreamed blind and visually impaired students adaptive equipment to help them in school.

"Do not let anyone tell you it is impossible," Fittipaldi says. "No is not a word you should accept, if in your heart you know that, if you just got out that door or off that couch and tried it ... you may succeed."

Photo: Lisa Fittipaldi wearing large, dark sunglasses, sitting and smiling in front of a large painting (which is slightly blurred, in the backdrop).

Resources

www.lisafittipaldi.com

www.mindseyefoundation.org

Art Education for the Blind, Inc.: www.artseducation.info/about.html

Art Beyond Sight: A Resource Guide to Art, Creativity and Visual Impairment. Edited by Elisabeth Salzhauer Axel and Nina Sobol Levent. Available in paperback or ASCII disk. www.afb.org/store 800-232-3044

Very Special Arts, 202-628-0800, http://www.vsarts.org/

Dialogue is a publication of Blindskills, Inc.: P.O. Box 5181, Salem, OR 97304-0181; phone: 800-860-4224; email: blindskl@teleport.com and website: http://www.blindskills.com