I just had a terrific session with Heidi.
I showed her my work which, sadly, does not translate well to photography (above)
Professor Julia Scher
Personal Essay – Group 1
How did I see the world in the first years of my life? How does that bear on the art I do now? Those questions have been with me for years. I had a story about my eyes: I was born with poor muscular control of my eyes and therefore my sight was blurry. I had a condition called strabismus. My eyes wandered inward and outward. I do not remember what that was like for me. What I do remember is the startling clarity of my first scene after the corrective operation: boats on the Charles River. The sharpness of that image stood out for me, so I assumed that my earlier vision must have been blurry.
When I searched “strabismus” I found a scientific description of the condition. A.D.A.M. defines strabismus as “…a disorder in which the eyes do not line up in the same direction when focusing. Strabismus is caused by a lack of coordination between the eyes. As a result, the eyes look in different directions and do not focus at the same time on a single point…. the cause is unknown…”
I also found a lead to a recent book, Fixing My Gaze, by Susan Barry, a neurobiologist who, like me, had been diagnosed with childhood strabismus. I related to her experience when she discovered at age 20 that she did not have stereovision or stereopsis, the ability to see out of both eyes at once. Similarly, I had no idea that I had only limited ability to see 3D until age 45, when my son was tested and I could see 3D only the first few sets on the test card. I was told then that the ability to see 3D was related to eye-brain development, learned in a child’s first 5 or 7 years, and that after that critical period, the brain was set. I was now fascinated to read that Susan Barry, as a neurobiologist, chose to investigate that idea, and at age 48, after intensive vision therapy, her brain had responded and she was startled by her first experiences of 3D vision.
Through Susan Barry’s explanations of how the eye and brain work together and descriptions of her experience, I came to realize that the story I had told myself about my early years was inaccurate. Instead of seeing blurry images, which is what I see when I cross my eyes now, I then saw flat images. Barry writes about what happens with strabismus:
Since my eyes were not straight and saw different things, the binocular neurons in my brain received conflicting input. This situation set up a competition between my two eyes, and for each neuron, one or the other eye won out. Each neuron in my brain now responded to input from only one eye. This change most likely happened in the first year of my life…(11)
In my early years my world must have appeared flat. It would not have felt strange because I never knew a different way of seeing. However, it did shape my experiences. It was more difficult to be among a group of unpredictably fast moving classmates. So, as a small child, I remember I would separate myself out in the pandemonium of recess. I could not figure out how to join the fast, furious play. It felt more comfortable to watch. I became a witness: they were on one plane while I was on another. I remember as a small child when the teacher asked me why I was not playing; I did not know at the time but now it all makes sense. I was soothed to read that Susan Barry reported the same feeling as a child: that she was in a separate world, watching.
So, did I not experience 3D at all? I did not have stereovision. However, I could judge where something was relative to something else by shadows or obstruction of view; and I could sense distance as I moved through it. As I grew older, recess activity turned to organized games and I could easily join with the help of structure. With the focus on the ball, players moved in relationship to it: I could judge distances and understand the space.
I lacked stereovision – without realizing it, I was only seeing the world as flat. How did I understand a 3D world? I was fascinated to realize that this same dilemma is part of artists’ challenges as well. In her book, Vision and Art, the Biology of Seeing, Margaret Livingstone describes how artists, in particular painters, attempted to achieve 3D effects.
Livingstone points out that perhaps the first person to make note of this issue was Leonardo Da Vinci who she quotes:
It is impossible that a painting, even in which the outlines, shade, light, and color are copied to the highest perfection, can appear with the same relief as a real object in nature, unless this natural object is looked at over a long distance and with a single eye (140).
For a period of time in the18th and 19th centuries, viewers were asked to look through a small hole in a curtain to view paintings in order to achieve the 3D effect in this way (140).
Livingstone credits the Impressionists with discovering another way to suggest depth: blurriness. By avoiding sharp lines of contrast, the two separate eyes do not have the same clear edges to focus on and to interpret flatness of the painting surface. Due to the fact that the painting itself does not read as flat, the other indicators such as shading and perspective feel stronger (143).
According to Livingstone, the Impressionists and post-Impressionists also found another means of suggesting 3D. By using repetition, such as of leaves for foliage, tiny dots for atmosphere, they could fool the eyes. Repetition over a large area meant that one eye could not settle and choose one image to match with the other eye. Livingstone explains it in this way:
When we view a three-dimensional scene, objects in front or behind the plane of fixation cast images on non-corresponding points of the two retinas. The brain must decide which images in the right retina …(to) match with images in the left. Usually the brain is correct in settling on the most parsimonious explanation. Repeated patterns, however, …confuse the matching process, since the several explanations may be equally valid, and this creates an illusion of depth (146).
What fascinates me about these three artistic means for creating depth that Livingstone mentions is that they all are vividly part of my experience. Long distance viewing – perhaps least important to my art- has always come easily to me. However, my attraction to blurriness has been a strong characteristic of my work. For example, in the body of work I created to submit to AIB, I used layers of translucent silk but I never cut the edges because the shredded edges gave a soft line- a blur. The numerous lines and edges, even the tiniest pieces of color all had to have these blurry edges. The pieces of dried plant were often obscured by the silk that softened their outline, and the application of paint on the frames was loose and blended. Moreover, repetition was apparent throughout this work. I tended to invoke a loose reference to the grid, using many smaller squares. Plant material comes in with lines or spirals one after another. I noticed that the motif of repetition came up, but I wasn’t sure why. It makes sense now – that I was seeking visual dimension that was otherwise missing for me. Recently, I created embroideries of various images of lines of children, which seemed to be an abrupt departure from my previous abstract work. What I loved about the finished images was the information available from the very blurry line, and that there were repeated images, with slight variations. I had wondered about those pieces after they were done. Why was I doing illustration? In fact, I believe, I was exploring the themes that have attracted me over and over again- the blur, the repetition.
Furthermore, I now see why certain other artists intrigue me. I refer to Jessica Stockholder, who claims that she works in 2D that happens to be 3D ( qtd. in Carruthers, et al, 17-18) and to Richard Tuttle, whose 20 Floor Drawings in Amsterdam, 1988 (ICA Amsterdam, 8-48)) look like sculptures. Both of these artists are playing with the interplay between 2D and 3D in a way that I relate to intuitively.
When I set out to write this paper, I expected I would be describing my experience of blurriness in early childhood and how that recurs in my work. I had not realized that I didn’t see blurs as a child, but that I was living in a 2D world. Nor did I realize how that has informed my work ever since – that the shifts in my vision that have affected me so profoundly continue to be a driving force in my understanding the art that attracts me and the art I endeavor to create.
A.D.A.M., Strabismus: Overview, Treatment, Symptoms, Causes. Google Health, Google.com /health, n.d., Web. 15 October 2009.
Barry, Susan, Fixing My Gaze: A Scientists’ Journey into Seeing in Three Dimensions, New York: Perseus: 2009, Print.
Booth, Jenny, Susan Barry, ww.week.com, n.d. Web. 15 October 2009
Carruthers, Elspeth, et al, Jessica Stockholder: Kissing the Wall, Houston: Blaffer Gallery, 2004, Print.
ICA /Amsterdam, Richard Tuttle, The Hague: Sdu Publishers, 1991, Print.
Livingstone, Margaret, Vision and Art: the biology of seeing, New York:
Harry N. Abrams, 2002, Print.