Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Blindingly bad artwork

Out-of-sight fundraiser produces

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I may not know a lot about art, but I know where to get advice when a charity invites me to whip up a "masterpiece" for a fundraising auction.

In these situations, I always turn to my good friend Jordan Van Sewell, a legendary Winnipeg sculptor and a man with a striking resemblance to Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.

On Thursday, shortly before taking part in a "media art challenge" in support of the Manitoba division of the Canadian Institute for the Blind, I asked Jordan for a few helpful tips. It went like this:

Jordan (stroking his beard): "Art can be dangerous. It's like walking a very fine line with a deep hole on one side and an even deeper hole on the other side."

Me: "Huh?"

Jordan: "Look at it as a bridge that you are going to span to the other side and it's the only road in to attain something you wouldn't otherwise attain."

Me: "Huh?"

Jordan: "Just don't use too much blue, because it brings people down, and red makes them crazy. Everybody likes purple."

Me: "OK. What about an artistic temperament?"

Jordan: "No, just go with a black beret. A black beret will get you through a lot of things."

Fortunately, when Free Press deputy editor Julie Carl arrived for the big art skills contest, she brought along (Why not?) roughly a dozen berets, which she politely doled out to the assembled media persons and local personalities.

The contest was designed partly to promote the CNIB's 13th annual Eye on the Arts Benefit Auction, a charity gala in which roughly 200 original artworks will be up for grabs on March 15 at the convention centre. (Tickets are $50 and can be obtained by calling 774-5421 or visiting and filling out the order form.)

But it was also intended to give us big-shot media types a taste of what it's like to live with vision loss. They managed this by handing out special glasses that simulate different visual impairments.

For example, my glasses simulated blindness in the right eye and retinitis pigmentosa, or tunnel vision, in the left, meaning my field of vision was cut to three degrees, kind of like looking through a very long and narrow straw.

Before we put them on, we milled around, exchanging witty artistic banter. With the glasses on, we were speechless. It took every ounce of concentration to avoid falling over our feet, let alone create works of art.

Speaking of which, our first task was to take photographs under the guidance of Tara Miller, who is an award-winning photographer and also legally blind. Tara's blind in her right eye and has six per cent vision in her left -- essentially the condition my goggles mimicked.

For the challenge, Tara ordered us to take classy pictures of food in the form of -- from the tiny speck I could see -- a plate of pastries and a bowl of sugary breakfast cereal.

"Having a visual impairment is no excuse for taking a blurry photo!" she warned us. "When it's your passion, you want it to be perfect."

The next art challenge, supervised by Shep Shell, the renowned blind potter/marathoner/cross-country skier, involved making a bowl from a small slab of clay, a task that required us to wield very sharp knives. (Safety Tip: If you see a visually impaired humour columnist armed with a knife, you should leave the room!)

In the end, I made a nifty bowl, which I decorated by using a nail to carve a drawing that was supposed to look like my basset hound Cooper but looks more like some kind of experimental octopus.

It is difficult, using mere words, to express how challenging it is to create art when, for the most part, you can't see what the (bad word) you are doing, but I will try: It's really hard!

"It was eye-opening! Really!" is how our deputy editor Julie phrased it as she slipped off her goggles. "I found I couldn't really hear when I had the glasses on. I realize now how much I rely on people's facial expressions."

The great news is that all the "art" we created is going to be on the block at next week's gala auction, which, by the way, has raised more than $450,000 for the CNIB since it began in 2000.

Normally, I'd leave you with a wildly hilarious yet deeply moving remark, but today I want to leave you with the message Shep Shell shared at the end of our art challenge.

"When you guys are done, you can take off the glasses and your life returns to normal," the blind artist said. 'With us, we live with it every day. You now have a much better appreciation for what Manitobans with vision loss deal with on a daily basis."

And now, you do, too.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 9, 2012 0

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