Monday, April 26, 2010

Legally blind Canadian graduates from art school

From The Hamilton Spectator in Canada:

Yvonne Felix (pictured) beams with enthusiasm, like a classical painting that appears to have its own inner source of light.

She isn't letting the fact she is legally blind stop her from looking to the future. Or dampen her determination to pursue a career in art.

"No matter who says 'no' to you, there's always a 'yes' out there," says the Hamilton resident.

Felix, 29, has just graduated from the highly regarded Dundas Valley School of Art -- the first legally blind person to achieve that distinction.

Soon, she will be teaching art to sighted students -- believed to be another first. (Artists who have lost their sight due to accident or injury have also taught.)

When Felix was a child, she saw the colours of the rainbow. Then her vision began to diminish. Now, she paints what she remembers and the vivid colours she still sees in her dreams.

The term "legally blind" doesn't mean her visual impairment is just a technicality. Far from it. Felix has about 2 per cent peripheral vision and a central blind spot. It's like having to look at the world past a white patch no one else can see.

The impairments stem from Stargardt's disease, a kind of juvenile macular degeneration that developed when she was seven.

Felix has a similar condition to visually impaired cross-country skier Brian McKeever, who earned a spot on Canada's Olympic team but wasn't chosen to actually compete at the Vancouver Games.

So graduating is no small achievement.

The event also marks a milestone in a lengthy journey from Felix's art class at a northern Ontario high school. There, her projects were often singled out as a lesson for other students of what "not" to do.

Today, Felix feels she is being rewarded for her perseverance.

"This is great and I feel I want to share that (sentiment) with people."

"No matter what ... if you want to do something, you can," Felix says. "There's nothing that can stop you as long as you are determined and you know that it's going to be hard work."

Felix does not want to be viewed as a kind of novelty item. Rather, she wants to give back to the community that has provided opportunities and helped nurture her dreams.

She earned a grant to attend art school. She's also been working at her educational assistant's diploma at the same time, so she could eventually work at a school. Plus, she expects to be teaching some classes at Dundas Valley School of Art and for a local service club.

"She's a great spirit. She's artistic, she's concerned, she's amazing," says Arthur Greenblatt, executive director at the art school.

Is the whole notion of a blind person in an art course unusual?

"It's unique. In over 40 years of working with students, she's the second student I've ever worked with in any capacity who was blind."

But that person didn't see art as a calling, the way Felix does.

Greenblatt recalls a workshop Felix put together for teachers from the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford.

"It was amazing. She has an ability to understand what none of us can -- what it's like to be in those two worlds simultaneously. Because, in some ways, she functions like a sighted person, and in most ways she doesn't.

"And she knows what those people can go through."

Felix said that first workshop was exciting but nerve-racking.

"Everyone knew that I had a visual impairment, and they work with people who have visual impairments. So I was comfortable. They didn't care if I looked them in the eye. I knew there were things about me that they already understood. But at the same time ... I need to know what I am doing.

"These are professionals, these are teachers who are going to go out and use the information I have to make their students' experience with art more beneficial. It was happy scary.

"What I've come to learn is it's not even about how things look. It's a completely different mindset.

"Things like smell are so important. And how work is interpreted. You can't get a photograph and put astroturf on it with white fluff, and say, 'Here's where the grass is and here are the clouds.'

"Because grass -- to me or someone else who can't see -- is like this long, skinny thing that is moist or cold. It has a completely different meaning, not just a visual one. So trying to tie in the emotional and visceral responses people have to visual responses is like a whole science." A different vocabulary.

"That's one of my main focuses -- trying to develop a language that will allow me to hover between both worlds almost, and connect them together."

At DVSA, she will run workshops for teachers in school boards and for people who are visually impaired. She will teach them how to draw, paint and sculpt, but on a level that makes sense to them.

Felix has a son (Noah) and the focus of her own work now is based on working with children.

"I've always had an interest in the creative process of making things, so play is a huge thing," she says. Her shows in the past four years have revolved around developing toys and play spaces for children.

And, on another front, Felix is excited research is under way to tackle the disease that robbed her of much of her vision. The Foundation Fighting Blindness is partnering with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in a $3-million, five-year grant that will fund a research project to develop innovative gene therapies for a number of degenerative retinal diseases.

But, for now, Felix is thrilled with her own progress.

"I had a goal four years ago. Then, the goal was still kind of a dream. Now, it's like this is reality. I am doing this."