Thon featured in Vision and Art Project show

Nevertheless, they persisted

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jul 04, 2018
Collection of Nancy Warren William Thon created “The Birches” during a 1996 symposium demo at the Farnsworth Art Museum.

Macular degeneration will affect three in 10 people, according to the American Macular Degeneration Foundation. Eight of the countless artists who have dealt with this challenge are featured in a summer show in Cincinnati. Two of them lived and painted in Maine, one on the Midcoast.

“The Persistence of Vision: Early and Late Works by Artists with Macular Degeneration” runs through July 29 at the DAAP Galleries’ Philip M. Meyers Jr. Memorial Gallery at the University of Cincinnati. It features more than 50 works and sets pre-macular degeneration works aside those produced as the disease of the retina progressed.

“By juxtaposing art produced both before and after the onset of symptoms, this exhibition demonstrates how deteriorating sight can inspire new and unique images,” the show’s press release states. Nancy Warren of Rockland can attest to that truth; bare spots on her North End home’s walls await the return of four paintings along the spectrum by William Thon, late of Port Clyde.

Works by Thon, who died in 2000, have dominated coverage of the exhibition and appear on the show’s catalog cover, postcard and poster. The catalog front has a detail of “The Birches,” an acrylic and ink painted in 1996 at a symposium at the Farnsworth Art Museum (Thon became legally blind in 1991). The postcard features “Deep Winter,” a 1976 oil on panel on loan from the Caldbeck Gallery.

“One of the things that has been interesting for us to experience as organizers of this exhibit is how powerfully Thon's work still speaks to viewers … in some ways he's become the face of the exhibit,” said A’Dora Phillips, who, with Vision and Art Project colleague Brian Schumacher, and the University of Cincinnati’s Aaron Cowan, curated the exhibition.

Warren met Thon during the many years she lived in Port Clyde. In those “retirement” days, she was working as a sight therapist with the Maine Center for the Blind (now the Iris Network), following an unexpected career at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass. She won’t call herself an artist, “but I do have paint brushes.” And it was during a brief stint as an art therapist after finishing a master’s degree at Boston University that she landed at Carroll.

“I said, 'Couldn't we do something with clay?' I didn't know anything about blindness, but I thought, wait a minute, I know something about something,” she said.

The first Community Mobility Program in the world was established at the Carroll Center in 1952. Unlike the “Miracle Worker”-famous Perkins Institute, which works with the congenitally blind, the Carroll Center is dedicated to those who lose their vision later in life.

“Father Carroll at the end of World War II said, all these young men are coming home with their eyes gone — a waste of humanity. So he started the Carroll Center for the Blind for newly blind,” Warren said.

Warren became a rehabilitation teacher at Carroll, which covered everything from how to determine stove settings by feel to how to file the right paperwork to access low-vision services such as closed circuit TV.

“People would come for 16 weeks, which is a huge section of your life. But if you get hold of your life and then you can live the rest of it, then it's well worth the investment,” she said.

As she discovered in her work in Maine, art is a part of life for many who otherwise don’t connect to the fine art world.

“Some of the lobstermen had secretly been drawing for years, but they wouldn't confess it out loud! If you turn over a rock in Maine, you're going to find an artist,” she said.

Warren learned to tread lightly, to let the people she worked with bring up what they valued, and missed, doing the most. Then they could work together to see if there was an avenue to pursue.

“Sometimes it's as easy as a focus light that would make all the difference. And with aging vision, most of us need to do that,” she said.

Thon knew of her work, so perhaps that led him to share his struggle one day on one of the walks around the village for which he was known.

“That's how I knew him, he was my neighbor and my friend. And he came one day and stood in front of me and said, ‘Nancy, I can't paint anymore. I'm blind,’” Warren said.

She said she was very touched to hear that from “such a lion of a man — he built the house by hand, you know,” and that she thinks, sometimes, words come out of one’s mouth at moments of crisis from a “collective wisdom” or intuition. Such seemed to be the case for both neighbors this day.

“I said to him, ‘Bill: draw a sloop in the air between us,’ and he went swish-swish-swish [gesturing as with a paint brush] and said, ‘Oh, I can!’ And he painted another 10 years,” Warren said.

Warren ended up being Thon’s sight therapist — she did similar work with Port Clyde’s Robert Hamilton — and she and Thon approached the Farnsworth about hosting a workshop for artists. In May 1996, INSIGHT: A Forum on Art and Vision Impairment was held, co-sponsored by the Rockland museum and the Maine Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

A flyer from the Farnsworth archives describes INSIGHT as a two-day symposium for artists, creative hobbyists, educators, social service providers, ancillary workers and companions, as well as anyone interested in the issues and options regarding creativity and vision impairment. Included were hands-on sessions, panel discussions, descriptive gallery tours … and a painting demo by Thon that can be seen on YouTube (see link below).

“There was a closed circuit TV showing him painting above his head, so that the low-vision people could see it, and he talked the other people through it. And then he finished the painting at the end of the day,” Warren said.

Phillips knew the story of “The Birches” and asked Warren if she would loan the painting, which Thon had given her, for the exhibition, “thinking I would say no.” But to Warren, the story and the spirit behind it made loaning it a given.

“I'm so very pleased that his work is honored in this way,” she said.

The pairing of “The Birches” and “Deep Winter” is a natural, as both have the Maine woods as subjects. Two of the other paintings borrowed from Warren show how the progression of macular degeneration affected Thon’s work. Both are of sloops, another favorite subject.

“A sloop with a light pink background and a sloop with a light blue background, which indicates that it's post-vision loss, because he was reducing the color,” Warren said.

Still on her walls, and in a storage box, are a number of the small paintings Thon made and sent to friends as Christmas cards. She pulled one out from the time Thon was transitioning to all black and white. She considers the cards treasures, and she has quite a trove.

“It’s an embarrassment of riches! His generosity. And lots of people in Port Clyde have equal, so I'm not the only one,” she said.

She and her late husband bought the sloop paintings from galleries; Thon’s work was still marketable during his progressive vision loss. But continuing to create was about a lot more — and is for many, as the INSIGHT symposium demonstrated. People came from all over the state. Warren estimates a quarter had an art background, but most just loved the experience of making art and “wanted to see what hope there was” for them.

“So it wasn't about fine art, it was about the experience of doing. And Bill was a doer from the get-go. In the video, he says, ‘I see with my fingers … I put Helen's earrings on this morning because she couldn't.’ Oh, the charm of those two,” Warren said.

Helen died a year before Bill did; they had been married 70 years. Their bequest to the Portland Museum of Art established the William E. and Helen E. Thon Endowment Fund to endow the Portland Museum of Art Biennial, the position of curator of American art and exhibitions of American art at PMA. William Thon also stipulated in his will that a selection of his paintings and prints be donated to schools, museums, libraries and hospitals across the state.

The other Maine artist featured in the Cincinnati exhibition is Dahlov Ipcar, interviewed three summers ago at a time when she believed her painting days were over. While vestiges of sight remain for many with macular degeneration, acuity decreases dramatically. And the well-known “hole” in the middle of the field of vision is particularly discouraging, making it impossible to focus on, and recognize, faces and objects. Thon is quoted in the catalog as looking at the world through “crinkled wax paper,” while Ipcar likens it to a “dense fog.” But she, like Thon, found a way to keep creating; she died last year with fresh work on the easel.

Two of the show’s artists — Serge Hollerbach and Robert Andrew Parker — are still alive and making art in the ways they have found they can. Others represented in the show are Lennart Anderson, David Levine, Thomas Sgouros and Hedda Sterne. Many, like Thon, found their way by changing their media and technique. The catalogue describes the Farnsworth demo in detail, as the one-time painter uses his fingers and breath to move acrylic inks over misted-on water; a putty knife to scrape up his tree trunks; crumpled paper towel to pull away pigment; and a pen nib to create branches. The result is an evocative image strong enough to warrant its cover status.

As Phillips and Schumacher write in the catalog’s title essay, “Regardless of how dramatically, or not, artists change their approach to artmaking, what emerges is always a new body of work that can be hauntingly, and thrillingly, unlike anything they had created before.”

For more information about the art show, visit daap.uc.edu/galleries/meyers_gallery. The Vision and Art Project is a multi-faceted research and curatorial effort funded by the American Macular Degeneration Foundation, a sponsor of the exhibition. For more information, visit the Vision and Art Project’s Facebook page; and macular.org.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.