March 23, 2015

Art and the Autonomic Nervous System

I treated myself to a textbook on the autonomic nervous system. I have started reading this concomitantly with James Joyce’s Ulysses. I returned to making small ceramic sculptures. I started writing prose poetry again after a hiatus of four years.

Sometimes all of the above converge in different ways. I collect interesting words like others might collect pottery, cars or motorcycles. I found a kindred spirit here in the neologisms of James Joyce but my favorite recent find came from my text on the autonomic nervous system. Signaling molecules that regulate the developmental processes of the autonomic nervous system include a curiously named one - sonic hedgehog. I have now appropriated this word for my art. My animal shaped small whistles and ocarinas will henceforth be known as sonic hedgehogs. Now that I have found a new way to name them, I’m making more of them. This time, not all of them will be aerophones - after all sonic refers to sound so any sound will do. The larger ones will be idiophones that make rattling and clacking noises.

I originally obtained the autonomic nervous system text book in order to understand my own dysautonomia better, and, hopefully to work with my health care providers to find a treatment plan. A better understanding came from reading page one. How was it, I wondered, that I could have peripheral neuropathy problems as well as autonomic ones? The answer was that they are part of the same system. So what seemed like it was plain unfairness actually made sense. The autonomic nervous system, I went on to read, has three major divisions, the sympathetic, para-sympathetic, and enteric. But soon my thinking on the text book became like James Joyce’s Ulysses. In Ulysses, Joyce follows the ruminations of his characters in the course of a day. This thinking runs along odd lines mixing phrases of Latin with a concatenation of verbal puns. After reading about the divisions of the autonomic nervous system I started mentally superimposing James Joyce on the text. The nervous system is divided into three parts, the nerve of this system to split into three. The utter gall. Like Gaul in the time of the Romans. Totus Gallia in tres partes divisa est.

Finally, I decided to take what I had learned from the autonomic nervous system text and write a new prose poem about it. The poem is called Autonomia.


Fight, flight, fright
sonic hedgehogs
whiskers resonating in sympathetic harmonies
Like notes on a chord
note to chord
sensing, quivering, feeling
dancing to the rhythms of Circadia


March 20, 2015

Cat Cat Cat

Despite my recent color debacle, I decided to make a series of black and white prints on top of variegated color backgrounds. I have always loved Japanese prints made that way so thought that I would try my hand at it. For the black and white over print I chose at whimsical lino-cut of a cat with a birthday cake that I made in honor of a friend’s birthday (I put white gesso over top of an unused Christmas card, printed the cat on top and sent it on). Black on red, black on blue, black on violet. Cat, cat and cat.

My friend had earlier made a lino cut of a cat with a long tail and had trouble getting a clean edge on said tail. Both her husband and I commented to her that perhaps the tail could use some more work. Later, I recalled that I used to give my students advice on how to complete assignments and found that sometimes if I tried to follow my own advice I would discover just how hard the assignment was. So I did the same thing with this cat lino cut. Sure enough, I had to cut the edge on the tail over and over again to try to get the curve right. And to make matters worse, the accidentally shaved part of the cat’s nose off. I ended up cheating a bit and adding wood putty to the nose and added paint to the tail to round it out.

March 19, 2015

No Yellow in the Left Eye, My oh My

"Be prepared not to be believed," a friend of mine said when I told her that I no longer see the color yellow out of my left eye. She was right. Thus far, I haven’t found a doctor in South Carolina who believes it. I’m just repeatedly told that this is a benign color shift due to my having had a cataract removed from that eye.

Today I told the latest eye doctor about my little experiment sending a picture of a green and yellow vase to others who had had cataract surgery and that none of them saw a vase that was light blue and light pink instead like I do. The doctor just told me that this was all a matter of perception. I should have known better than to try to persuade him but persisted. I showed him a magazine photo of a light yellow machine. I told him that out of my left eye it is just off white. "Only a matter of perception," he intoned then played a little mind game with me. "I see it as green." he said. I still didn’t know when to quit and said that I just didn’t think that it was normal to not see yellow at all. He replied that I was a "sensitive" artist and should not be so overly dramatic.

I should have stopped at "I can’t see yellow."

The trouble is, since losing the color yellow in one’s vision is rare there aren’t standard tests for it. There is one that a friend in the medical field recommended but I found today that it is only used for research purposes. So until I find an institute where I could possibly get such a test it is only a matter of my word, which I find that the medical community seems to consider quite dubious - melodramatic, sensitive artist that I am.

In the mean time, painting is a challenge. Earlier, I would see a split color field looking at an object: yellow on the right half and pink on the left. Now I see the wrong color on the left, the right color on the right and a mixture looking with both eyes. Neither left nor with both eyes is really correct.

Missing yellow changes many things. It turns green into blue. It turns people’s skin tones into a pinkish purple. A brown person looks purple. To illustrate, using a patch over my left eye, I made a painting of a golden brown leaf on a patch of emerald green fabric. To the left of that I painted the leaf again, this time using only my left eye with the patch over my right. The results are above. Out of my right eye I see that they are different. Out of my left eye they are about the same - but that is all just a matter of perception I suppose.

March 16, 2015

Strange New Color World

The doctor told me that my newly acquired peculiar color vision in my left eye was nothing to worry about - just a difference due to the surgical implant I had following cataract surgery. My last blog entry related how I was trying to adjust to the new color world of pink bananas, grey grass, blue peas, and not seeing what I was trying to paint any longer.

I decided not long after my post that I had had enough of attempting to paint with a patch over the offending eye, trying to eat spaghetti with a sauce that looks like raspberry sorbet, seeing awful colors on my favorite clothes, and harvesting flowers that looked grey instead of purple and peach instead of yellow. The painting problem had been especially disconcerting because it had crept into stereoscopic vision as well. The painting I made at right with both eyes open I thought had a light blue background.

So I called the manufacturer of the artificial lens and gave them a report of the problem. My patience having run out, instead of attempting to legitimize what I was now seeing, I spilled out a whining concatenation of how terrible their new lens was vis a vis my quality of life with regard to eating food with unappetizing colors and not being able to see what I’m painting....and I want it out! According to the manufacturer, the color distortion that I was describing was way out of bounds for what was normal for their lens. That prompted me to examine the situation again. After researching color blindness on the net I discovered the reason why the doctor told me I had "normal" vision. I was given a test for red green color blindness and my problem was yellow blue. Needless to say, at the time I pointed to the yellow trash can that I could still see out of my right eye and let the eye doctor know that out of my left eye the trash can was white. He was unmoved and I was again reassured that the filter in my implanted lens was the culprit.

I did some unscientific, albeit helpful tests to further isolate the problem. I created an online gallery of yellow objects on Etsy and posted it in a treasury entitled "Sweet Sweet Yellow Goodbye." I wrote a caption explaining that after surgery all the pictured objects look white, peach, and pink. I went on to say that the doctor said this was normal. Is that true? I queried. I expected the display to go viral, with a resounding "Nay" from the internet world. What in fact panned out was that only seven people even looked at the gallery of yellows, two of them writing a note thanking me for including their work among such pretty things. Clearly my ability to create a message left something to be desired.

On to plan B. I selected a picture of a glass vase that was described as yellow and green from my Etsy list of yellow things. I cut and pasted this onto to an e-mail and sent it to people who had correct vision and as well to others whose vision had been corrected by cataract surgery. I told them I saw a vase that was very light blue and trimmed with very light champagne pink. As I suspected, even those with implanted lenses after cataract surgery saw green and yellow.

"Aha!" I said to myself. My first inclination was to take my findings back to the doctor who tried to convince me that it was perfectly normal for an inter ocular lens implant to wipe green and yellow right off the visual map and exclaim, "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"

Instead I thought I might contact an eye doctor with greater cosmopolitan flair and erudition with my problem. He agreed that the lens was most likely not the problem and gave me a short list of medical tests to do. He also made mention of a peculiar illness that often follows a neurological episode and causes color distortions that range from seeing the wrong colors to seeing the world with no color at all.

It was hard for me to imagine a world that looks like the Wizard of Oz film before Dorothy opens that door to Munchkin land. But yesterday, when broad daylight over my blue, red and yellow flannel shirt turned it to gray and white I could imagine it. What would one do if the living world became black and white? Would I still dream in color? I vowed that should such a fate befall me I would become an even more avid consumer of classic black and white films than I am now and spend my days working on black and white drawings.

In the mean time, I’m giving my patched eye a break and making monoprints in black with limited color palettes painted back in to them, nestling in to the safety of gray tones.
  I had thought this monoprint was abstract.  Turning it upright I see that it is a cat.  It looks like my theme of cats in paintings and illustrations is not quite over.

March 12, 2015

A Division of Color in the Post Cataract World

I recently had a cataract removed and an intraocular lens implanted. I took it as something of a minor miracle of science that the vision in my left eye could be restored in such a way. The only trouble with the implant was that I noticed a dramatic change in color vision, unfortunately not in a good way. Green pine trees now looked a dull greyish blue. Light yellow turned to white. Blue in the ultramarine range turned to teal. Golden yellow turned to pink. To make matters even more disconcerting, I would sometimes see a split color field...normal out of my natural eye on the right and unusual on the left. Looking at a golden oak door, for instance, gave a split image: golden on the right side and red on the left. The door looked like it was made from oak on the right and from cedar on the left. Several weeks went by. A month went by. The colors stayed the same.

To add to the craziness of this new split color vision, I was told that I was the only one who experienced this kind of color distortion. A recent test for color blindness determined that I was not color blind in my left eye. I wondered about that. As an artist I have always been not only sensitive to colors but to tonality as well. Therefore, on a color blindness test, although the colors were muted and grey with my left eye, I could still detect forms because they were slightly lighter than the background dot pattern. I remember my color blind brothers being able to decipher forms that way by concentrating on the tonality.

When I told the doctor who examined me that I cannot see yellows, greens or blues accurately, he explained that my intraocular lens had both blue and yellow light filters in it which would change color perception. That may explain why the world suddenly changed with what must be a permanently implanted pair of sunglasses in my eye. The doctor assured me that some years down the road, when I get my right eye "fixed" everything will look the same, so not to worry. I imagined a world where daffodils look pink, spaghetti sauce looks like raspberry sorbet and green grass is slate blue grass - out of both eyes instead of just one. It was not exactly comforting.

Something a painting conservator told me came back to be in my current pink daffodil world. He once said to beware of painting techniques, media, and pigments designed by scientists rather than artists. He said that painting restoration was best left to people with art training who are sensitive to colors and understand the use of paint. The painting formulas and media invented by chemists don’t really work on a practical use basis, he told me. I understand this better now with regard to the new intraocular lenses. The scientists who designed the ones with yellow and blue light filters did so as a means of protecting the eye against UV light and hence, macular degeneration. (The jury may still be out on whether or not they really afford the patient the professed protection). On a practical basis, the resulting vision appears thus far to be tantamount to looking through sunglasses - functional but not exactly pretty. So science had in mind people whose livelihood and/or quality of life does not depend on accurately discerning colors - and that would be most people - design for function but not finesse.

For a painter, it is a loss, and rather disconcerting to see a different hue out of each eye -an annoyance that would be perhaps like what a musician might experience if he heard a different pitch out of each ear! But to be camp about it, the lens was a replacement part. And as I age there are likely to be mounting replacement parts. And despite the best endeavors of science and medical breakthroughs, a replacement part is never the same as what nature gave us. Considering the alternatives, functional is good enough for now.

as I used to know it in my left eye.

The painting of the daffodils above was painted purposely yellow on the right and slightly pink on the left, to reflect the new world. When looking up different types of color vision, I came across a web site which depicts how people see a yellow flower and how a butterfly sees it. The top photograph depicted a yellow flower. The "butterfly eye" photograph below that showed a flower that was slightly pinkish purple. I closed my right eye and looked at the two photographs with my artificial lens eye. They were both identical to the bottom version. So the mystery has been solved. I have been given a butterfly’s eye. Makes me think of Zhuang-zi’s butterfly dream.