In 2000,a month after my father died, the shingles virus attacked my formerly "good" right eye. I had no idea, until then, what "shingles" was. I learned. It was, first of all, terribly painful--so painful that I could not even talk on the telephone because it hurt too much to speak. Urgent Care sent me to an ophthalmologist. I walked into his office. He looked at me for a second, and then said, "Well, get used to the idea! You're going to go blind!"
"Well," I said, amazingly calm, "Then I'll have to build my art studio first."
I left his office, drove to the nearest lumber yard, and walked up to the contractor's desk.
"I need to build a small art studio in kind of a hurry," I said. "What do I do first?"
"Get pier blocks," the contractor said. "Put three in the back seat and three in the trunk."
It was December. I lay on my blue tarp, leveled all the pier blocks , built my small studio from the ground up, including the roof. The cold air made the pain bearable.
That was eighteen years ago. Amazingly, I did not go blind. I just lost most of my sight in my right eye.
About three years ago, after cataract surgery, my left eye, which had been a "lazy eye" since birth, and which had seen only the horizon and a blurry view of the rest of the world, suddenly was able to see everything and everybody --at arm's length, and beyond.
My artwork is a celebration of new-found sight--one eye at a time.
Neither eye can see print clearly.
A few years after the shingles virus attacked my formerly "fairly good" right eye, I had the opportunity to move to a unique triangular two-story house on the shore of Puget Sound. My living quarters were upstairs, and my pottery kiln had its own room downstairs next to the landlady's three-car garage. Two sides of the triangle consisted almost entirely of windows overlooking the water. The third side faced the road,. The road was backed by a hill so high that morning sun never reached this house.
"Wow!" That's all I could say as I stood in the kitchen that first day! I set my old NIkon film camera, with the portrait lens on the kitchen table, and that's where it stayed, mostly, for about six years!
The shingles virus left scar tissue on the cornea of my right eye. The left eye saw only a blur where the sky met the
the mountains. Everything else --on the left--was a blur. But--to my amazement, I realized that, standing there , facing west, as long as the sun was not directly in front of me, I could see every color--and I could see that every color and every shape was constantly moving!
Because of my vision issues, I had never, in my entire life, noticed this!
I had realized, of course, that night changed to day, and that clouds covered and uncovered the sky, but I had never stood in one place and just watched how that happened.
So day after day and night after night, moment by moment, I just stood and watched these images evolve .
The views you see , of course, are only a tiny fraction of those I saw. I saw what I did because in dim light my right pupil enlarged, and the scar tissue did not. I saw between the pieces of scar tissue.
That's the miracle, to me.
In my college-teaching days, I felt it was my calling to reach out to the students--both teenagers and adults, who dreaded English, "hated" English, put off Freshman Composition until their Senior year, wished English would just go away. I used to ask, the first day of class, "Is English Pain, or Pleasure, for you?"
"Pain," just about everybody said. "You have to think what the teacher thinks. You can't be yourself. You have to sound impressive, be phony, sound like an English Major--take a client out to lunch, ask if he's read The Iliad."
Many semesters, the first day, no one could think of anything nice to say, about English--so I developed some pretty unorthodox teaching/learning strategies.
"You know," I would say, "If we don't go two by two to first grade and teach reading, writing, and art there--two of them, two of you, they might turn out like YOU guys! Think of this: Who knows better than YOU do that traditional school classes don't WORK for everybody! Every one of you has creative potential. I can show you that--and then YOU can show THEM! And look around this campus. Think about the students who have to write papers in departments outside of English. There are people here who dread English more than YOU do. We can HELP them write those papers, show them that there are other ways to approach subjects they dread."
So--the first day of class, I need to teach you all to DRAW! RIGHT??? --So you go out of here looking at things, wondering about things, opening doors you never would have opened, walking on streets and alleys you never would have considered walking on--so you get in the habit of identifying with the CREATOR of things, and not so much the CRITIC of things. So let's go outside right now. Choose one of your five senses. Take notes about what you notice with it. I'll be out there too. Twenty minutes. Don't talk. Just wander around noticing things. Then come back in and compare notes. Will we all notice the same things? Will it be boring? Interesting, humorous, sad, weird? Let's find out. "
After a few weeks of this, my students were asking ME: "Hey, Miss Gill! Dod you know that the lights on Main Street turn to caution at midnight? Hey,Miss Gill did you see that plant growing from the outside of the building into the girls' lounge? Did you know there's a guy downtown who says he's Richard Nixon?"
Some faculty members at my last college used to have bright blue bumper stickers that proclaimed "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance." This made me wonder what my own bumper sticker would proclaim, if I had one., but nothing I wanted to say fit in that space,
In my twenties, I wanted to quote Erich Fromm: "The root of "education" is "educere," which means "to lead forth." That is, "to bring out the unique potential of each person." In other words, the opposite of indoctrination,. So--in those days, I longed for almost everyone to abandon the lecture method and try - - well, all kinds of things. How about meditation? How about asking faculty in, say, Geology, to make pottery once a week? How about askng English profs to rent the town pool and swim with their students? How about jogging with your students every morning ? How about eliminating in-class themes? How about having the prof write an in-class theme, and students grade it?
Well, as you can see, I would be an ENFP in Myers-Briggs terminology. The P stands for "perceiving." I would like to go on perceiving --seeing , watching, looking, listening, wondering, doubting, laughing, exploring, asking "what if?" trying things out, every day for the rest of my life.
I think of this as "the creative process." and no, no, no--don't GRADE it, or have a test on it, or . . . . . Just go for it--and --take your heart and mind and soul with you wherever you go.
Langston Hughes begins his poem, "Spirituals," with these lines: "Rocks and the firm roots of trees./ The rising shafts of mountains./ Something strong to put my hands on." And then, a few lines later, he says, "I heard my mother singing/ When life hurt her."
My mother didn't sing. She wept.
I have thought of that all my life--all the tears, all the grief, all the sadness that human beings everywhere have felt--and the tremendous courage and bravery and hope that enables some to sing anyway.
When I joined my composition students in the ceramics studio in the evenng and on weekends, I always brought along a Peter, Paul, and Mary cassette, and students brought their own favorite music. We took turns listening to each other's tastes. I discovered that the music found its way into the clay somehow. It was as if the clay and I "sang" together, .--slowly, at the pace of hand-forming--as if there was rhythm, and melody in every motion.
I kept my forms simple, used my thumbs to smooth the clay, and shape it., was never in a hurry to complete a piece. Each one seemed to settle into its own pace. None of my pieces had any "frills." Nothing was about cleverness, about performing. It was more like a quiet dialogue than, say, a ballet.
It's still that way--a philosophical kind of process--as if the clay and I, together, are full of songs--very simple , quiet songs --about how it feels to be living, and listening, and reflecting--somehow with everyone else, and yet , also, deeply alone, feeling our way through this mysterious, surprising, and oh so temporary life.