Bits 'n' Pieces: Blind painter's watercolor vision rewarded

By Ashley Swanson, Columbian features news coordinator

Published:

 

Vancouver watercolor artist Susan Gustafson paints the world as she sees it, as her sight shrinks and dims.

Gustafson was diagnosed more than 30 years ago with retinitis pigmentosa, a progressive, degenerative genetic eye condition that squeezes her visual field into a tiny frame.

"So whatever I see is always a composition," she said. "My mother and brother are also blind, save for a few inches of light."

She will be honored with the Shared Visions Artists Award by the Marshall B. Ketchum University in California on Sept. 19 as part of its annual gala. Gustafson submitted her watercolor "Tulip Time" to the university's annual art show for visually impaired artists, earning Best of Show.

There are few juried art shows in the United States for visually impaired artists, but Gustafson has exhibited in Chicago, Los Angles and San Francisco. "I just kind of found a niche for my work," she said. "Five years submitting paintings to these different venues, it's where I can shine and get recognition and encouragement." It's also a chance to meet and share a similar vision with other visually impaired artists.

Watercolors are a natural fit with Gustafson's love of being outdoors. "I like (watercolors') fluidity, the quality of the color, it practically paints itself. It's also more intuitive and more magical." Most of her watercolors were created in the tradition of pleins air (that is, on location or "open air") painting, accompanied by her first guide dog, Mirage.

"I love to travel the new horizons, to see the sunrises and sunsets, I love to feast my eyes on new sights," the 63-year-old Vancouver resident said. Many sightedartists will find themselves moving to larger canvases, but "my paintings only get smaller and smaller," Gustafson said, matching her view of the world.

"I have no formal training, just painting from my heart. I'm blessed as a blind person with having a unique way to see the world. I'm able to share that unique quality of sight with the world," Gustafson said. "It's thrilling, it's humbling too."

Her second guide dog, Pilgrim, joined the family in May. "Pilgrim doesn't know I paint," said Gustafson, whose brushes have been in the closet lately as she spent the past year becoming a licensed reflexologist.

Gustafson first picked up a watercolor brush after 35 years as a dental hygienist; she had to retire because her deteriorating eyesight no longer allowed her to use sharp instruments safely. "I found a way to practice more healing, just using my thumb and forefinger. I can do it all now that I'm trained and licensed." She's looking forward to returning to painting and finding a new inspiration, she said.


Bits 'n' Pieces appears Fridays and Saturdays. If you have a story you'd like to share, email bits@columbian.com.