This isnít really a sob story or even a medical story, mainly, although it sounds a lot like both. Beloved Providence art scene mainstay Ruth Dealy goes blind and, after high-risk surgery, recovers her sight. Somebody call Oprah.
No, the way she tells it, her two-year emotional odyssey had more to do with learning the difference between sight and vision.
"I used to think painting was all about what I did with my hands," she said over the phone a few weeks ago, talking about her show at Rhode Island School of Design. "Then I thought it was about what I saw. Then I grew up and realized it was about neither."
Still. An artist or art lover losing their sight is hard enough to take from the outside, never mind how it is for them. Those luminous landscapes of Tom Sgouros evoke more than appreciation when viewers learn that he is legally blind. And then there is Virginia Lynch, at her eponymous and prestigious gallery in Tiverton, who in the last couple of years has become blind in one eye and is losing sight in the other.
Dealy, 57, has suffered from serious eye problems since age eight. Glaucoma, cataracts, uveitis. Growing up in Cambridge, the rebellious daughter of two professors ó father a nuclear physicist at MIT, mother a geneticist at Harvard ó she says, only half-joking, that she wanted to become an artist mainly to annoy them. Eventually a 1971 RISD graduate, she was first admitted to Radcliffe College when it was still part of Harvard, but after the black-caped young woman showed up to talk about it, she was promptly dropped to the waiting list.
At 16, Dealy went blind for the first time. That remained permanent for her right eye, but with medication the left one recovered. For the next 40 years there were no serious flare-ups. The glaucoma remained in stasis until two years ago, when she started to lose sight in the remaining eye. She went completely blind a year later. Last September, Dealy had radical surgery performed by Dr. Joseph Ducharme at Rhode Island Hospital ó two nurses joked with her about whether her odds were a chance in million or a 100 percent better, two chances in a million. But when she took the bandages off for the last time, she could see again ó clearer than she had for many years.
During her blindness she produced six landscape paintings, which are being exhibited along with a self-portrait she did in the same period and a landscape done after her recovery. The eight canvases comprising In the Land of the Blind: Paintings by Ruth Dealy are showing through September 7 in the entry gallery at the RISD Museum.
The "landscapes" are all of the same view: out the window of the Providence studio where Dealy has worked for 13 years. Regent Place Park is across the street, and her view is composed of trees, a slide and a swing set.
"When you go to the studio you see a view out the window of what sheís actually looking at ó itís so plain and ordinary," says Judith Tannenbaum, the museumís curator of contemporary art, glancing at one of the paintings. "Itís just this very basic city park.
"What she does with it is so different from what it actually looks like," the curator adds. "It serves as a stimulus, as a vehicle, but itís not really the subject matter."
Historically, artists have always been breaking down visual experience into constituent components in order to re-view. The post-Impressionists did so when they added expressive colors to the palette that impressionists permitted themselves. The Cubists did so even more radically ó Picasso one-upped everyone with his Les demoiselles díAvignon, adding African mask-like faces to pump up the emotional, evocative volume.
Dealy had long explored self-portrait as a genre ó what she has called her "cast of thousands" subject matter ó in a similar way. She breaks down the planes of her face into explosions of expressionistic strokes that ring the ostensible stillness of the features like a gong. Her studio window paintings are a lot like those. The scene is basically the same, if you allow for seasonal variations in leaf cover, and the real subject matter becomes the emotions on display at the moment.
The works in the current show werenít as much painted on canvas as they were painted on Ruth Dealyís memory, like the late lily pond paintings of the virtually blind Monet.
As she walks around the RISD gallery taking in her work, Dealyís hair wanders every which way, like a Monet haystack if he had taken a pitchfork rather than a paintbrush to it. Her bold red signature lipstick stands out like a stamped wax seal.
No, this artist is far too vital to have come through her ordeal with something so relatively trivial as a "sort of medical drama," as she describes it in the course of minimizing it. So what was the through line of the illness-as-performance-art she reluctantly experienced?
"The intensity of desire to establish what your reality is," she says. "Itís sort of taboo to say thatís spiritual, but for me it really was, in the end."
"Regent Place Park No. 1 (Ground Fog)" (2001) is the largest painting, about seven feet wide. One assembly of graceful brown strokes emerging from its depth of white-speckled mist is unmistakably suggestive of a bird. The first stage of grief is, after all, denial.
The other, smaller canvases are all the same size, 5íx5í, cut to the width of her outstretched arms so that she could know exactly where she was in the image area. Dealy had the paints arranged in a sequence that she memorized.
Only two more titles orient us in time and thereby identify the coloration that was blurring before her: No. 2 is early spring and No. 4 is sunset.
"Iím not that manually talented, but I donít editorialize that much," Dealy says. "I donít have an editorial viewpoint, and thatís my strength as a painter. I donít say, ĎThis is a tree and you should love it because itís lush and greení ó you know what I mean? I say, ĎThis is kind of an amazing thing called a tree, and I have no opinion about whether itís green or brown or black.í "
The fresh green here and there in No. 2 and No. 3, signaled as foliage amidst branches, is replaced by brilliant orange in the sunset painting; some of the branches, in the glow, are now brown instead of black.
"People assume so much about whatís there visually because they learn what they should be looking at," the artist says. "In grammar school, they know what a tree trunk looks like. I realized it isnít like that. In fact, when I came to really seeing again, I had trouble judging what things were. I saw so many things that I hadnít really seen since I was young, because of cataracts and stuff. I had trouble seeing thatís a cat, thatís a tree. And with that displacement came the realization that we are taught how to interpret things.
"I see myself as a very realistic painter, in a way," Dealy feels. "Because Iím after the preciseness of a thing. Like if youíd do a shoulder an inch wrong, by the time you get to the elbow itís three inches wrong, and when you get to the wrist youíre a foot wrong."
Spatial relationships are very important to Dealy, and she mentions that in these landscapes a person could determine the distance from the swing to a tree ó if you managed to figure out what hinted abstraction represents what.
Dealyís two favorites are No. 5 and 6, which she did when the blindness was total, the one right after the other. The first of them represents "surrendering" and "giving in." It is the most peaceful of the lot, the least visually busy, stabilized by a soft brown patch that dominates the center. The next represented "hope," she says, in the period before the operation. Here the brown makes way for a delicate green, and the "sky" is somewhat calmer.
After her sight came back, the first painting she did was an embarrassment.
"I thought, ĎI can see again!í " she recalls. "I was little woozy because they had given me so much cortisone . . . I went to the studio and had this busy-busy energy. I was like, ĎHmmm, letís get busy with this tree!í And I did such a godawful painting. I call it ĎNorman Rockwell on Speed.í Itís just the worst thing."
Her voice gets squeaky with annoyance. " ĎPretty leaves!í It wasnít sheís-hard-on-herself bad. It stunk to the very core of it," Dealy says. "It was this enthusiastic response to what is: ĎIt is a bird, and Iím going to paint it!í It was almost like being a colonialist and taking over a country. It was a right-wing moment, it really was."
If you get the impression that Ruth Dealy values honesty in art, youíve got the right idea.
She describes these latest paintings as "five years ahead of myself." When asked in what regard, Dealy says they have encouraged her "to be more honorable about emotions." She hopes to get more of the emotional honesty of her self-portraits into the landscapes.
"I think I need to be more scared and stay scared, which is hard to do," she says.
The second painting she did after her recovery, the one after the acrylic travesty she described perpetrating, is the last one in her show, No. 7. The soft-edged, dark moss-green circle at the center appears black from a distance but upon scrutiny clearly looks more like a treeís foliage than its shadow.
Currently she is working on one similar to No. 7, only the "hole" in the center is blue. At the moment, she says, it looks "a little like a Caribbean travel poster."
After 38 years of painting every day, taking only weekends off, after going blind twice in her life and learning each time more deeply what it means to have vision, Ruth Dealy isnít going to be lying to us on canvas any time soon.
A reception for In the Land of the Blind: Paintings by Ruth Dealy, and for Richard Fleischner: 3 Over 3, will be held on Friday, July 18 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the RISD Museum. Call (401) 454-6500.
Issue Date: July 4 - 10, 2003
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