Sharnita “Shugg” Smoot vividly remembers the initial trauma that would lead to her transformation into an artist.
It happened five years ago when she was a double major at Towson University, with a packed schedule that included cheerleading and an internship. Suddenly, in the middle of class, the sounds around her became hyperamplified and she felt a burning in her eyes. “I couldn’t look at the light at all.”
Since childhood she had had an eye disorder, amblyopia, that severely limited her vision in one eye, but she had worked her way around it by relying on friends to take notes when she could not see the blackboard. Now, on top of that, she was diagnosed with photophobia, an intense sensitivity to light.
“I had to stop everything all at once,” including school and extracurriculars, said Smoot, now 25. “Everything I cared about was being lost. Everything I identified myself with was gone.”
But sometimes after a fire, new seeds take root. Always a doodler, Smoot began to seriously pursue painting, wearing dark glasses to protect her eyes. The hobby became a business, and now she is one of four blind or visually impaired artists whose group exhibit, “Illuminations and Impressions,” opens Thursday at H-Space in Shaw.
It is the second show of its kind organized by Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind in partnership with the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design at George Washington University.
At the first one, in 2015, “Visitors on opening night were awestruck by the abilities of people with vision loss to create such masterpieces,” said Jocelyn Hunter, Columbia’s senior director of communications. “They did everything but come out and say, ‘I am shocked.’ Their faces said it all. I’ve had people ask me, ‘Well, how can the artists do it? How precise, how clean the lines are.’ ”
Erika York, one of the show’s participants, does not think they should be surprised.
“I’ve had people ask me, like ‘How can you paint or how can you create art if you can’t see?’ and I think that’s the weirdest question ever because creating art is supposed to be about your perspective, your unique perspective” she said, adding, “I could paint if I was totally blind. Like when people who are hearing-impaired write music.”
York, 26, was in elementary school when she was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, an inherited juvenile macular degeneration, and now her vision is blurry and she cannot see things that are far away. Her paintings are large, marked by bright colors and strong black or white outlines, and feature figures who wear glasses or do not have eyes.
York works fluidly, not knowing what she is going to paint until she paints it. “I want it to be stark; I want it to be seen, so if I walk by, I can see it,” she said as she drew a brush over canvas in her home studio in Bowie on Tuesday morning, her pit bull mix, Snoopy, keeping her company.
Exhibits like this one “help chisel away at a lot of the barriers to delicate conversations about people with vision loss,” Hunter said Tuesday as students and a professor from Corcoran worked in the gallery blocking out where to hang paintings.
Clare Brown, who heads the school’s master of arts program in exhibition design, added, “From a visual standpoint, it doesn’t matter — these are beautiful works of art, and that becomes clear when you put it in a gallery setting.”
Some of the show’s participants have been practicing their art for decades. Chris Downey worked as an architect for 20 years before losing his sight in 2008; now he teaches architecture at the University of California at Berkeley, focusing on design and accessibility for people with vision loss.
Lawrence Harrison has been painting since he got out of the military in 1980, around the time he was diagnosed with glaucoma. He became legally blind 20 years ago and uses magnifying equipment to help him paint portraits of stars such as Prince, Maya Angelou and Miles Davis.
As his vision has deteriorated, “I focus more on the little things,” said Harrison, 59, seated beside his soon-to-be-hung works. “Every little detail matters, every little dot.”
For her paintings, Smoot shines a strong light on her canvas while being careful not to let it point at her eyes. She cannot work for more than two hours at a time.
Her canvases, which include figures of women falling, incorporate her experience with vision loss. Sometimes it can feel as if there is no ground beneath her feet, so she has worked optical illusions into her art.
She is acutely aware that it was this loss that led to her career as an artist, which also includes teaching and designing clothing.
“I wouldn’t have found who I am right now if I didn’t lose my vision,” she said. “There are hidden symbols in all my pieces. You really have to look within it, and that’s how I live my life.”