eSight’s high-tech glasses help blind artist paint again
For art students, final critiques can be the cruellest form of punishment. Friends from OCAD University have shared horror stories about all-nighters, panic attacks, tears and mini meltdowns.
Receiving negative feedback about your work is hard for any artist. So imagine how difficult it must be to receive negative feedback if you’re visually impaired, meaning (a) you’re unable to see your work yourself; and (b) you’re forced to rely on the eyes and opinions (which given the dog-eat-dog nature of the art world are likely to be biased) of your critics, who are also your competitors.
Yvonne Felix knows exactly how this feels. Yvonne was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, the most common form of juvenile macular degeneration, at age seven. Within eight years she’d lost most of her vision. In addition to loss of visual acuity, other symptoms of the disease include wavy vision, blind spots, blurriness, impaired colour vision and difficulty adapting to dim lighting.
Yvonne is, hands down, one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met. She is a wife, a mother of two and an award-winning visual artist, the latter of which is an extraordinary feat considering the effect blindness has on a visual artist’s hand-eye coordination.
Struggling through art school
Yvonne’s only visual memory was of a unicorn, an image that strongly influenced the appearance of her early paintings and sculptures, as well as limited her to juvenile subject matter.
Despite the cautions of her high school art teacher, who warned her parents of struggles to come, Yvonne enrolled in a postsecondary foundation studies studio program at the Dundas Valley School of Art (DVSA), in Dundas, Ontario.
At DVSA, Yvonne kept the extent of her disability to herself. She recalls: “I was in a life drawing class. We each got to take a turn positioning the model at the end of the year. I wanted one spotlight on the model with no other light sources.”
Her classmates complained until her professor apologetically turned the lights back on, leading Yvonne to eventually explain that she needed dim lighting in order to see.
Yvonne used her mind to internally visualize her work during its creation, but lost the image immediately after a drawing was finished. She could never revisit her work—she had to finish each piece in one sitting.
She also had to rely on her classmates’ critiques of her work instead of her own perceptions of each piece. When it came time to evaluate their work, it was difficult for her to evaluate the technical aspects of a piece, but she could respond emotionally and critique its movement.
The incorporation of life-altering technology
In December 2012, everything changed. Yvonne received a digital headset from eSight Eyewear, an Ottawa-based company (and MaRS client) that uses breakthrough technology to capture, enhance and display a real-time video that enables sight for people with low vision and legal blindness.
eSight has enabled Yvonne to become a more informed artist, both in and out of the studio. Her appreciation for art has changed entirely.
“I think artists are people who want to solve problems. When you’re given a blank canvas, in order to solve that problem you need to put an image there and fill that space,” she says. “That’s why I think engineers are the greatest artists in the world, including the ones who designed eSight.”
What technology can do for an artist with low vision
eSight has enabled Yvonne to judge her work for herself and to rely less on others.
“I used to have people read for me or evaluate something esthetically for me,” she says, “but now I can gauge people’s opinions. Instead of using their eyes, I can use my own eyes.”
Yvonne can form critical opinions, draw comparisons and evaluate her own artwork, ultimately striving for improvement. Her technique has also improved dramatically. Before eSight, she had to rely on texture and touch, as well as mathematical theory, to understand colour combinations.
“I used to paint with my hands. If I didn’t touch it, it couldn’t exist to me,” she explains. “Now I use brushes! I spent years using a map to understand colour tonality, so there was an abrupt adjustment in my artistic perspective and range.”
“Being able to see again has been life-altering,” she adds. “I don’t remember what it was like to see, except for that last unicorn, so technology has actually had a 100% influence on my perception as an artist because I see the world differently, I process the world differently, I work differently. Losing my sight… I was young enough that it created a world, and now I’m in a different world. I’m in a different place of perception.”
With eSight, Yvonne is now able to pay more attention to detail and she no longer needs to collaborate or rely on a third-party perspective to have control over the outcome of her work.
Technology has also enabled Yvonne to appreciate art history.
“I went to MOMA [the Museum of Modern Art] in New York City and it was a serendipitous, highly emotional experience for me,” she says. “I had only seen famously recognizable paintings in books and photos, which just isn’t the same.”
With her eSight headset strapped on, Yvonne wandered around the museum and recognized some of her favourite paintings, including Henri Matisse’s “Blue Nude.” Yvonne now works at eSight as the company’s outreach coordinator and still actively participates in the local arts community.
Technology’s broader impact on art and its ongoing potential
There are art forms that exist solely because of technology and art forms that are influenced by technology. Each artist has a unique relationship with—and reliance on—digital technology.
Keeping this in mind, it’s not surprising that technology is also changing the traditional arts, such as painting and drawing. Going forward, technology like eSight’s will continue to shape the arts, increasing accessibility and creating innovative new methods of emotional and technical expression.