Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The eyes don't have it: blind challenge revealing

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Doug Speirs paints what he hopes resembles his late basset hound, Cooper.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Doug Speirs paints what he hopes resembles his late basset hound, Cooper. Photo Store

You have to wonder what Michelangelo would have come up with if he'd had to create his artistic masterpieces standing in the middle of a crowded shopping mall at lunch hour wearing a blindfold.

What I came up with was a painting of one of my dogs. At least I think it was one of my dogs. It's hard to tell because, as I painted it, I was wearing special glasses that made it hard to see anything beyond my nose.

This came about because on Tuesday, in the middle of the bustling underground shops of Winnipeg Square, I was one of a handful of media types participating in the "Blind Media Painting Challenge" in support of the Manitoba division of the CNIB.

The general idea was to promote CNIB's 15th annual Eye on the Arts Benefit Auction, a charity gala in which more than 200 original artworks will be up for grabs on March 20 at the RBC Convention Centre. (Tickets are $50 and can be obtained by calling 204-774-5421 or visiting CNIB.ca and filling out the order form.)

But they also wanted to give us snooty media personalities the tiniest taste of what it would be like to carry out a normal activity with vision loss.

We had the choice of painting blindfolded or wearing glasses that mimic different visual impairments. I chose glasses simulating diabetic retinopathy, a condition CNIB client Rhonda Brown, who was painting nearby, has had to deal with since suffering a serious stroke in 2010.

Looking through these glasses was like having a couple of tea strainers -- or those things you use to drain spaghetti -- strapped over my eyeballs.

In Rhonda's case, she doesn't have a choice. "I can see things; it's just very blurred around the edges," she explained. "It's difficult to see a computer screen because the peripheral is not there. It's a little frustrating."

It was the first time she'd tried painting since the day her vision became impaired four years ago.

Slathering paint onto a canvas once we had our blindfolds and glasses on, it was extremely hard for us media artists to find our way to our easels without tripping over each other's feet. Luckily, we were guided by Jon Ljungberg, who, along with being a standup comedian and veteran TV host, also teaches children's book illustration at Red River College.

"Form a picture in your mind, then let it flow down your arm, through your fingers, and onto the canvas," is what Jon helpfully advised as the challenge began. "Also, try not to sniff the paint."

I kept those words in mind as I painted via the technique of sticking my face as close to the canvas as possible, imagining my late basset hound Cooper, who passed away last year, then randomly sticking my brush into the paints on my palette and slapping them on the tiny canvas in what I hoped was the shape of a dog.

At the end, we shed our visual impairments and wandered around professionally frowning at each other's work.

"It is ... um ... finished," is what Jon observed as he eyeballed my masterpiece. "It appears to be a dog. I like the little wag marks by the tail."

If I had to select one word to describe the painting done by local radio icon Tom McGouran, it would be "green" because his canvas resembled grass, a lot of grass.

"It was an unreal feeling," Tom said of painting something he couldn't see. "I didn't know where the canvas was or where the paint was. As you can see, I missed the canvas several times and I had no idea what colour I was using. It seems I used a lot of green."

Tom's radio partner, Larry Updike, tried to show me his portrait of his new dog, Norty, but -- even though he had removed his blindfold -- he managed to knock over Tom's easel, sending the green canvas crashing to the mall floor. "I think it looks a little better now," Larry snickered as someone retrieved Tom's toppled masterpiece.

(Unrelated Breaking News: On Monday morning at 7 a.m., the two radio icons are coming to an Internet near you, launching their brand new weekday tomandlarry.ca show, which will stream live from Tom's in-home studio.)

I do not wish to brag here, but even though the media paintings were meant as gifts for CNIB's sponsors, they liked my doggy painting so much it is going to be framed and auctioned at the Eye on the Arts gala, which has raised more than $450,000 since it began.

The artistic truth is, my favourite painting was Rhonda Brown's, which featured the words "joy, love and hope" surrounding a red heart and two bright-blue suns.

"It was a real eye-opener," Rhonda sighed of her first stab at painting since her vision became impaired. "I loved it. People take their vision for granted. DON'T take it for granted! Doing something simple like this -- or brushing your teeth in the morning -- people take it for granted.

"This was a good way for people to realize what partially sighted and blind people go through every day. I'm very fortunate, and so grateful the CNIB was here for me."

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2014 A2

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