A guest blog by Katherine Cooksey.
“Why don’t you wear glasses?”
“Contacts don’t work for you?”
“Isn’t there a surgery you could try?”
These are all questions I have heard again and again. But my favorite is:
“How are you an artist if your eyes are bad?”
See, the thing is, glasses, contacts, and even surgeries do nothing for my vision. So yes, I am an artist slowly losing my vision. And no, there is no cure.
But let’s start from the beginning. Around the third grade, my parents began to notice I was having trouble seeing things like the whiteboard or the television. Several pairs of glasses later, with no real improvement, my parents and I found ourselves at the Jules Stein Eye Institute with Dr. Joseph L. Demer.
I am sure my parents were given an explanation close to this definition of my disease from the US National Library of Medicine:
Dominant Optic Atrophy (DOA) is a neuro-ophthalmic condition characterized by a bilateral degeneration of the optic nerves, causing insidious visual loss, typically starting during the first decade of life. The disease affects primarily the retinal ganglion cells…and their axons forming the optic nerve, which transfer the visual information from the photoreceptors to the lateral geniculus in the brain.
However, they told the 10-year-old me that my eyes were not getting enough blood, creating “holes” in my sight. Of course, because the universe seems to work in threes, I was also diagnosed with dyslexia and a speech impediment at the same time.
My new challenges really set in in junior high. All six class periods came with their own books, and because I needed large print, I was given several volumes of each book. My attempt to carry these books gave me scoliosis, which then meant I had to use a rolling backpack, and in turn was kicked by other students in the halls.
I also attended speech classes, sat in front of class, needed extra time on tests, and was told I may never be able to drive.
Still, it was not until my eighth grade art class when I truly became frustrated. This was my first experience with a person who was prejudiced against disabilities--and it would not be my last. My art teacher told me I would never be an artist because I did not have the talent or the sight.
To a young mind, a teacher’s words can be even more influential than a parents’. To my father's disappointment, (he had started teaching me how paint), I decided to give up on art.
High school was even worse. I had several teachers who did not want to give me the accommodations I needed, either because they believed there was no point because I was not going to amount to much, or because they did not want to be bothered. My parents finally hired a lawyer after I had continuous problems getting the tools I needed to learn.
Luckily for me, my parents fought hard for my rights, and I was expected to work hard. My sight was not an excuse. Like my older brother who is also dyslexic, I was not only expected to take honors and advance placement classes, but to get good grades even if that meant working harder than my classmates.
On my first day of junior year in high school, my new teacher announced this, in front of my class:
“Katherine, the world is not going to accommodate you, so why should I? You are never going to be able to graduate from college or get a job if you require these special accommodations to learn.”
That was the moment I had to make a choice. I could once again listen to this person who did not know me or what I could do, and give up on my life’s goals.
Or, I could fight.
I chose to fight.
I picked up my paint brush, and have not put it down since.
After graduation, I went to college. I also started driving, though with limitations. Like Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother, my license gave me new freedom, but it also said I could only drive from dawn to dusk.
At the same time, I began art shows, and I sold over half of my work.
You can learn to live with learning disabilities, but they never magically go away. I faced challenges every day, even as I graduated cum laude from California State University of Bakersfield, and worked full time as a Gallery Manager for Studio Channel Islands Art Center. I face them now, at the Pratt Institute in NYC, as a Master of Fine Arts candidate.
My accomplishments are that much sweeter knowing my disabilities are not hindrances, but a part of my unique view of the world.
So to answer the question, “How am I an artist with bad eyes?”
I just am. 20/20 vision is not a requirement to make a difference.
Katherine Cooksey recently won the title of Miss New York World and is a student at Pratt Institute in NYC.