In the Mind's Eye | Our Town | Chicago Reader

In the Mind's Eye 

Visually impaired artists put their world on display.

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By Brian Nemtusak

"I always had problems with my eyes, even when I was [growing up] in New York," says Oak Park artist Carmello Gannello. "I could never find a job. I was very, very nearsighted. To tell you the truth, I was in the ungraded class, because I couldn't see the blackboard. And none of those teachers really helped me. But I belonged to the Boys' Club--it was only about a half a block away. They knew I had an eye problem. There was a librarian, her name was Knuse." She was "very concerned about me....One day she gave me a piece of paper to draw something. And she liked what I drew and she sent me to the art class. But the instructor says, 'I can't let you in until you get glasses.' So I got glasses."

He says he was ten years old when he got them, in 1930. "I just went to a pharmacy, you know, a store where they sold glasses. I didn't go to the ophthalmologist. I don't think in those days they had ophthalmologists."

In his teens Gannello's paintings and drawings, technically strong exercises in color and line depicting Depression-era east Harlem, won him awards and a scholarship to the National Academy of Design. He did well, though "the teacher couldn't get me to read, because I was not interested in reading. You know, I was all for art." He laughs. "That was bad for me, I guess." When he graduated in 1940 he found that positions for artists were scarce. He took the first of a long line of warehouse and maintenance jobs. In 1956, not too long after a workplace mishap involving some ten-inch pliers falling off a ladder (which he thinks may have first loosened something in his eye), he and his wife, Mavis, moved to Joliet.

Gannello got a job with Sears Roebuck, but just before Christmas he slipped and fell on the ice on the way to work. He didn't hit his head, but the next morning he noticed a veil over his vision that came and went. He had suffered a retinal detachment in his right eye. Doctors said that while the chances for successful surgery weren't good, it was the only option. Without the operation he was guaranteed to lose the remaining vision in the eye.

The surgery was a success, but three months later, working for a construction company, Gannello suffered a second detachment in the same eye. Doctors operated again, but afterward his vision was worse than before the surgery and was distorted by the kaleidoscopic effects of "floaters," essentially debris from the deteriorated retina suspended in the vitreous middle of his eye. Medically prohibited from doing the heavy labor that had until then constituted his livelihood, he struggled to find a job but found himself frequently considered a "work hazard" because of his handicap. Based on the results of an Illinois Division of Vocational Rehabilitation test, Gannello enrolled at the School of the Art Institute and began studying commercial art.

Gannello's work there led to a career in production design at the local textbook publisher Follett in the 60s, but by the end of the decade a hemorrhage and retinal detachment in his other eye again left him without a trade. With partial funding from a skeptical IDVR he went back to SAIC in 1976 to get his BFA.

At SAIC a teacher told Gannello to "paint what you see," and he began to incorporate the floaters and other distortions of his eyesight into his works. The best of these wryly play up the rhymes between the floaters (seen as disks, sometimes with halos) and everyday elements of landscapes and interiors. Calm, lucid, dryly surreal compositions, his paintings, linocuts, and etchings display "an incredibly strong presence of all the corpuscles and vitreous opacities . . . that needless to say superimposes itself on everything he looks at," says fellow artist Scott Nelson, who in 1986 created a touring exhibit of artwork about visual restriction. "He was doing 'Art of the Eye' long before this exhibit concept came along."

Nelson, a sculptor, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 1972, when he was 25. Attacking the rod cells, which are concentrated on the periphery of the retina, the condition causes night blindness, tunnel vision, and eventual loss of sight. "At the time the prognosis was five to seven years. I thought that losing my sight would mean losing my imagination, capacity to dream at night--losing anything visual that helps to inform my life with meaning."

He began making welded metal tripods with a kind of swiveling tube at eye level that one looked through to simulate his restricted vision. Turning it left and right, Nelson realized that with his visual memory he could piece together "a perspective as great as anyone's--only segmented. From there I presumed that other artists experiencing sight loss might be able to illustrate the world through their eyes, and convey not loss but some things that might be found there."

The result was "Art of the Eye." Nelson organized a juried competition of artwork by visually impaired artists across the country. Fifty-two were selected according to both aesthetic quality and illustration of the visual impairment's effects, among them an illuminated mixed media piece, Retinal Detachment, by Gannello. Balancing the dual criteria was an admittedly tricky affair. Without insisting on a clinical approach ("few artists are actually illustrating their impairments anything like a medical illustrator"), Nelson does say that "sometimes [the connection] was so incredibly ambiguous and shaky that these works were not selected. There was one artist, Laurel Cazin, who presented photographs that I thought had nothing to do with sight I asked her to create new works....Now she's got some remarkable photographs, black-and-white, autobiographical, about fear, about light-adaptation problems, things that speak more clearly to the whole experience.

"Artists with normal sight," Nelson continues, "often intentionally distort picture images in order to give the viewer a more intimate experience, to give them a window to the quintessence of shape and form and light. Artists with vision impairments sometimes can sidestep that process and go right into a unique viewing experience." The complicated, delicate elements of the eye and optic nerve are all prey to a variety of disorders, producing more variations in visual distortion than the most energetic postmodernist could ever hope to create. In some of the exhibit's art the connection was obvious. Our Home, by Mary Solbrig, has smeared, melting brushwork reminiscent of a late Monet; pigmentary mottling, the condition affecting her one good eye, causes pigment on the retina to clump together, producing visual field defects that recall impressionist renderings of light. Harlequin, by sculptor Patrick Farley, is by contrast finished and realistic, unlike what he sees, "blocks of color or shape, somewhat like a Cezanne painting." His condition, retrolental fibroplasia (a growth of extra tissue behind the lens), has left him legally blind.

To some degree the exhibit begged the whole question of whether art is about its subject or a reproduction of a way of looking at it, where deviations from "normal" function can generate subjective character. A visual impairment, by limiting possibilities of expression, can energize those remaining. The loss of sight can reveal inherent talents but, in Nelson's words, "these artists sadly aren't making art all the time, and they aren't always floating in a state of euphoria--because they have lives, and they have to go places, and they're constantly reminded of their sight loss."

A second exhibition, "Art of the Eye II," featuring works by ten of the original artists, including Gannello, opened in Houston in 1997. It's now at the Illinois College of Optometry through November 8. This Friday at four Nelson will conduct a gallery walk and answer questions.

An operation to remove cataracts from Gannello's eyes in 1995 restored some of his color vision, lost in the 60s, but he feels more confident working in black and white. He credits his impairment with "making" him, despite the hardship and economic distress it's often caused. "I never thought of money. I thought of art. I thought of the eye," he says. "And that's why I was able to see what I saw. And in fact I went far beyond what was in front of me."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni.

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