City Lights: Seeing beyond the visual

One of my best-kept secrets is that I'm terribly nearsighted. I wear contacts most of the time, but my glasses are nearly a centimeter thick on the outer edges. In two ways, I'm lucky — first, that I live in a part of the world that easily provides glasses and contacts, and second, that my eyes' shortcomings can be fixed by anything at all.

Last week, I sat on the back porch of Kurt Weston, a Huntington Beach resident who is legally blind, and interviewed him about his life as a photographer. I could see him a few feet away, but he couldn't see me, really — nothing beyond a flesh-colored shape, he said. It's the same way he sees people when he takes their picture, before he steps into the dark room with his thick right-eye lens and finds out what image he just captured.

"I would be really depressed, I think, if I couldn't still do my work," Weston told me, a stack of books of his photographs covering the table next to him.

Weston, who was among the Annual Achievement Award winners this year from Arts Orange County, is one of two Huntington residents with work in the sixth annual "Shared Visions Art Exhibit 2010-2011" at the Southern California College of Optometry in Fullerton. Weston and Arlissa Vaughn, who are both legally blind, will have work displayed at the college's Eye Care Center through August.

Vaughn, who runs the art magazine Visual Overture, suffers from the genetic disease retinitis pigmentosa, which has caused her to lose night and peripheral vision gradually over the years. Right now, she told me, she is legally blind at night and has difficulty seeing objects in the shadows — including stairs, which she has to climb slowly. When she creates her mixed-media pieces, which involve digital prints, acrylic paint, clear wax and oil pastels, she uses multiple bright lights to ensure that all her tools are visible.

"Even my husband doesn't always understand when I can and can't see something," Vaughn said.

Vaughn's art is impressive on its own, but she doesn't mind if people note her disability. She said she hopes the exhibit, which also features information on different eye diseases, will show patrons that not all visually impaired people are seniors hobbling on canes.

Weston, who co-founded the annual show in 2005, also doesn't object to being labeled a legally blind artist. He's grateful for his one barely functional eye, which requires a three-quarter-inch-thick lens to read one or two words at a time up close. Weston's sight began fading when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991, and he now gets by with an eye patch, a guide dog and whatever technology he needs to make it through the day.

In the meantime, he's flourished as an artist, even teaching classes at the Huntington Beach Art Center. Earlier this year, he displayed a series of nature images at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton, which gave him one of his three nominations for Arts Orange County.

Listening to him and Vaughn speak, I thought about two famous artists of the last hundred years: Helen Keller, who wrote books while blind and deaf, and Christy Brown, who had cerebral palsy and hammered out a body of work with his left foot. Some may view them as a testament to human courage, but I think resourcefulness is a more accurate word. Faced with physical limitations, people can choose to give up, or they can do the best with what they have.

I'd like to think I'd do the latter, if I had to look through a three-quarter-inch-thick lens to write this column.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

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