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Communique: Artist Kate Cardamone Works Around Blindness

Gina M Gambony
WHQR Public Media
Kate Cardamone observing her work with a 12x magnifier

Technology, ingenuity, and a little help from the family and friends are the tools Kate Cardamone uses to keep painting. She's legally blind, but you wouldn't know it by looking at her exhibit Reflections Over Time: Water, Birds, Flowers at the Bellamy Mansion in downtown Wilmington.

Listen to Kate above, and find our extended conversation-and photos of some pieces-below. The exhibit is up through November 3rd, and a portion of sales benefits both Bellamy Mansion and Cape Fear River Watch.

Gina:      I want to hear what pieces that might be important to you .

Credit Gina M Gambony / WHQR Public Media
WHQR Public Media
Art by Kate Cardamone

Kate:     These are all...Well, most of these are very recent. This I did this winter and into the spring. I spent a long, long time on this one. My youngest son Christopher loves to take pictures and he loves sunsets and woods and everything. So we went to Wrightsville beach, I think it was Christmas day and around 5:36 and the sun had set. And I said, Chris is sunset. Let's not go to Wrightsville beach. He said, "no, no mom post-sunset, post-sunset." So we went to Wrightsville beach and the there was this orange sky, it was most dramatic sky. And I said, "Chris, do you have your phone on you?" And he goes, "yeah." I said, "photograph this, take that, take that, take that from this perspective, backup too." So he sent me about nine attachments and I have a big, big screen at home and I looked and looked and looked at those and then I went to my studio and painted and I painted and painted and painted for months and struggled a lot with the composition. I always start with a horizontal line. I always decide where the sky meets the earth and I was draw that line first and I draw with a t square because I used to draft as a landscape designer and I have a lot of drafting tools. And then I just started in on it, but I was struggling with the... The orange was no problem. That was just so pretty. But the upper sky, you know? And I was really struggling so I mixed my oils and used my fingers and the neighbor came in and said, "It looks like your finger painting." I said, "I did!" She said, "well it looks terrible." I said, alright. So I redid that. And then my oldest son came in and said, "mom, you're just doing sky and water. Very little focal point." I said, "yeah, I know. We better make it exciting."

              So I like to draw birds, but you know, I'm blind-ish. I'm talking about my blindness. That's something I want to talk about a little bit for people to understand retinal diseases. But I love birds. So I have all these bird books and I have all this adaptive equipment at my house for vision and one's called the CCTV screen, which is a big TV screen and you put work under it and you turn it on and you look at the screen and you can magnify it almost 60 times. So it blows everything up enormously. And then I look at the birds I'm interested in and I draw him with magic marker, looking at the screen, not at my hand. And it's a hard thing to learn initially, how to not look at your hand, which has probably helped me in my painting because I'm not seeing my hand. I'm just doing something, looking at something else. And then I go out on my sidewalk with pastels and chalk and draw the birds over and over and over again until I then put them in the painting. I just point to where I want to do it. And then I know the shape and the form I want to do each one and I just put it in. And then I use these. These are very special magnifying--no that's my sunglasses. This is a magnifying glass. A pair of glasses that magnifies 12 times. But the problem is it only magnifies half an inch from your eye. So I put this on. I can only do one. I can only do one eye at a time because you can't double magnified both eyes because you'd be looking at two different things. Do you know what I'm trying to say?

Gina:      I do. 

Credit Gina M Gambony / WHQR Public Media
WHQR Public Media
Artist Kate Cardamone

Kate:     So this is it. I've broken so many of these. I got them in Massachusetts, so this is what they do. I didn't want my students to be off put by my disease, so I call them my googly glasses.

Gina:      Well, your eye is so big.

Kate:     Yeah, this is my googly glasses, but really they have a name. They're magnifying glasses, but I don't know. They can only do one eye at a time and the right eye is better than-no, the left eye is better than the right eye.

Gina:      So when you are looking at a painting, you have to get right up on it.

Kate:     I get paint on my nose and on my face constantly. Not the best of things when you're using it, but it's the only way I can do this is I go like this. It's really hard, but I don't care. I'm still painting. You know, and this of course is the battleship and everybody recognizes it and since I've come to Wilmington, I go down, I can walk to the boardwalk and I photograph it over and over again with a camera that has a little zoom lens, point and shoot. I just know where the battleship is, and I point and shoot, photograph and photograph, and I like piers because Monet always did piers. Then I go home and I've done this many, many times, sent the cards out to people. This is Wilmington, this is the sunset, this is the battleship. So I just threw that together this spring.

Credit Gina M Gambony / WHQR Public Media
WHQR Public Media
Art by Kate Cardamone

And I did a bridge and that was too hard for me, really. I used all my drafting tools to do it. It's a memorial bridge. I did--where is that other memorial bridge. I've got another memorial bridge did 10 years ago and even 10 years ago I could see better than I see now. And it was a little easier. This was very hard and I had to keep redoing it. Everybody that came in said it was wrong, it was crooked. And then finally my youngest son came and I had drawn in pencil using drafting tools, all these lines. And he said, "mom, you gotta paint it." I said, "I just can't, I just can't do that line." He said, "I'll do it for you." So he did those lines from those diagonal lines. But I repainted this so many times and I did the boat to make it interesting and I put, I threw some birds and to make it interesting. So these are just scenes of Wilmington. I love the Wilmington water tour and I just went out on several rides with them many times and photograph looking back. I love the boardwalk. I walk it every week, back and forth. And when I first moved here I vowed to walk it every day and I did for awhile. Now it's every week. But this I repainted like 10 times. This was done in the last six months. This was done in the last six months. That was done or maybe eight months. I can't quite remember. This was done before I even moved here. I photograph that and took it back to New York when I was living in New York, working there for awhile and did this, Isabelle Holmes bridge. But I've decided bridges require much more vision than I have. And I did put it under my screen, but it doesn't really fit, you know. I had the screen with me in both Boston and in New York. Anyway, I'm not going to try to do things that hard anymore because the stress levels high. I'm gonna do some fun things. I gonna use the knife, the palette knife.

Gina:      Well look at this!

Kate:     This is, I love Greenfield Lake and I met a young man who's coming here this weekend, Daniel, and he loves birds and he's like an incredible person in every way. But anyway, he mentioned the mergansers, which I'd never heard of the mergansers before in my life. And I looked them up in my big bird book under my screen and I thought he said they go to Greenfield late, they migrate and they come through. So I wanted to put them in the painting. Did that same way of drawing them over and over again. There's several species of merganser, I think are the common with the red. The males of course, always prettier. And these of course are the bald Cypress or pond Cyprus. I haven't learned to identify. I used to know Bald Cyprus but I didn't know about the pond Cyprus. So, I love those trees and the Redwood family.

Gina:      So these paintings that are--and these are oils--these are from the last few years that are from North Carolina. The Wilmington ones.

Kate:     Yeah. I just finished this. It was still almost wet when I brought it here.

Gina:      And then I see, I suspect this one here, is the swans? Is this from the area?

Kate:     Yep. And then it's kind of made up a little bit because I sometimes throw birds in the paintings when they're not there and I wanted to do a fall scene.

Gina:      The pictures that are far away, like the bridges or just farther away things seem less distinct in their expression on the canvas. But when you're doing something up close like this here with the ducks or this one here, this shed, this sub shed, Cape Fear Community College--I don't know, it's like you're very close up to it and it seems more distinct in its representation. Am I making any sense?

Kate:     Well yeah, I didn't even realize that, but also I could do this. I think the bridges were just too difficult for a visually impaired person to do. Because I know plants, I know flowers, I know morphology. I've taught it for 30 years so I could draw you a tree, not even looking right now. I could draw you even the birds that I've drawn over and over again, the forms, I could draw it on the wall without looking at it.

Gina:      Right? I mean, these ducks are perfect.

Kate:     Practice makes perfect. Get your chalk out on the sidewalk, all the kids will join you.

Gina:      Let's sit down for a minute. It's very interesting, as a visual artist, to have a visual impairment. Did this visual impairment begin later in life or has it always been with you? Can you tell me about it?

Kate:     I'd like to, because I want to give people hope that have eye diseases. So I was diagnosed when I was 30, but I had had it for awhile, but I'd been compensating not knowing. I had trouble driving as a teenager at night, had night vision problems. And it's in my family. It's a rare retinal disease, which a retinal disease- there's different kinds. Mine's rare. It's called Stargardt's, named after the man that found the genetic malfunction. It's a gene malfunction, like an autoimmune disease where my genes tell my rods and cells to die. And so I've been losing my cells in my central vision, even in my childhood and teens not knowing it. My brother was legally blind, my older brother, when he was like eight or nine. But I went in because I was nearsighted to just get my glasses upgraded and the doctor said something's terribly wrong.

              And, so I got diagnosed with this rare retinal disease. And then another sister of mine, I'm one of 10 children, got It. So it's a recessive gene and that means if it were dominant, 50 percent of the family would have, it was recessive 25, but in our case, 30 percent got it. And I, being sort of indomitable and optimistic, I just thought it's not going to really happen. And it did and when it really impacted my life, I stopped driving like when I was 42 and stopped being able to read. And I did get discouraged about a lot of things, including painting, but I was painting as a hobby more than as a career. I did major in painting, but I didn't try to do it as a career. And got discouraged. And then, I did a watercolor show where I was teaching. Had all watercolors, about 15 watercolors, sold 11 and I was very excited. So I went out and bought a beautiful Winsor Newton paintbox and I got really, really nice french paper called Arches for watercolor. And then I was my parents...

Gina:      How old were you at this point?

Kate:     Forty-two. And then my parents and I was going to give up our, I was going to do, I've done it. I've had a few solo shows, have done group shows. I've done it. I'm going to just give it up because I don't want their frustration. But then I'm very spoiled. My parents called me up and said we want- because I could still see pretty well even though I couldn't drive. You need your visual acuities and your retina and you can thread needles and he can't read books and you can't drive if you don't have the visual acuity. 

Credit Gina M Gambony / WHQR Public Media
WHQR Public Media
Art by Kate Cardamone

But my field division, because I have peripheral vision, but also even then when I was 42, even though I couldn't drive, I still had a field of vision. I could still see buildings and trees and I could still see the big things. I couldn't see the little things, but I could see the big things. I could even still see some people's faces. Now I haven't seen my own face in the mayor for about 20, 25 years. I don't see your face looking at you, but I have peripheral vision, which means I see your edges kind of blurry. I mean, you don't see perfectly.

              So my parents called me up and said we want to show you a Tuscany while you can still see, get a babysitter. And I went with my youngest sister, Amy and my parents and spent about nine days in Italy. And I thought, okay, I'd given up painting but I just did by this wooden box recently and this Archers paper. I'll bring it with me and this paintings in the other room from that trip. And I painted onsite, in Tuscany, in Rome. And I said, okay, I guess I can do this. And the, even as it got worse, as the disease just kept getting worse, I just kept coming up with ways of trying to do it, trying to paint. And one of the ways is just using more and more knife work and using my screens and adaptive equipment. And the other thing is I absolutely love color. I guess you can tell. I love color and I have a good memory which stands you in good stead when you lose your vision to have a good memory. I take the painting tubes and I go onto my screen and read them and I'll give you an example of blue.

              There's quite a few varieties of blue paint. Do you know about the blue paint?

Gina:      I know there's a lot of blues.

Kate:     People love blues. So there's ultramarine blue, which is a violet blue. There's cobalt blue which is like a blue sky blue, almost a pure blue. And there's Surillian blue which is a greenish blue, a little lighter than cobalt. And then there's a prussian blue which is like a midnight blue and there's a phalo blue which is a bright kind of almost gaudy blue, blah blah blah. There's all these blues and I like to juxtapose blues which are complementary with orange, so you'll see blue and orange a lot in my paintings. But I also like to do purple with yellow because that's complementary and you can mix them and get a gray. So I remember all the paints and all their colors and other mixing and what happens when you mix them and what colors you get. The problem is I can't really see, not only the tubes, but I can't always see the colors I mix.

              So I put them on a separate cardboard and then I put them into my screen to get the value or the intensity I want. So if I didn't have all that adaptive equipment-it's good time to be blind because of, because of adaptive equipment and also because, you know, for a audio visual now they have so much auditory and computers that talk and all that stuff.

Gina:      So you see kind of a blur right now.

Kate:     It's a big blur. And the problem is for me is that I used to be able to see bigger things and now I really have a lot of gray and a lot of ... I walk outside, I feel more blinded, but I'm not blind. I'm legally blind and there is a difference. It's, it's a distinction made by the state because when you're legally blind you can get help from the state with training, retraining for jobs because usually you can't stay in the job you're in and they give you equipment.

              Then they offer you assistance and canes to teach you how to use a cane. I stopped driving but I wasn't declared legally blind for year because it's a, you've got to have a certain amount of blindness to get that status, if you will.

Gina:      When you look at this floor, can you see the color of it?

Kate:     I think it's Rad, right?

Gina:      Yes.

Kate:     Yeah, I can see it more here, but over there it's blurry, but I can see it. I can see right here. Close.

Gina:      Can you see the pattern?

Kate:     Yeah, it's um, leaves. I think.

Gina:      Yeah, it's like, leafy.

Kate:     Yeah, the closer I am ... and you know, people I didn't even realize I had a reception here and some people were introducing me to their friends and I kind of went too close to their faces and got in their personal space. And I do that unintentionally because I want to try to see their head or their hair or something. And finally one person said, you're leaning awfully close to me and I said, I'm sorry I'm getting in your personal space. I didn't even realize it. Because babies will let you touch their nose to nose. And so when I get a baby in my face, sometimes I can see their eyes and stuff and my grandchildren and stuff like that.

Gina:      The thing that it reminds me of. It's like Beethoven, you know, a composer who loses his hearing, um, and it's. And it's, it just feels like it's such a tragedy. But then he continued to compose at because he had the memory, like you were talking about, he had the memory of the sound of the notes and he could still write them. And, and that's what a lot, what you're doing. So you're looking at the name of the colors you can see and remembering.


Credit Gina M Gambony / WHQR Public Media
WHQR Public Media
Art by Kate Cardamone

Kate:     Yes, with huge magnification. Even my pallet, when I put the paint on the pallet, I can't see it, so what I've started doing is pointing paintbrushes towards the color I just put down. I've got a lot of ways of coping. And the only reason I'm doing it, it's fun. You can see I'm having fun. I mean when I get really frustrated, that's when I say you're trying to do too much detail. Don't do the detail. Just have fun because it's the thing that makes art good, I think is of being free, not being caught up in doing something right. Don't you think?

Gina:      Absolutely.

Kate:     I have to say something about my family because they really supported my art when I was a child. I don't know when they gave me my first paint brushes and tempera paint, but my parents loved art and they had a lot of art on the wall. Local well known artists and prints and paints, paintings everywhere and that was very inspirational as a child to see all that. So I decided I would paint their walls for them, so I got my little pain versus out and painted their walls and they said, okay, that's enough of that. And in Utica, New York is a beautiful thing. There's a museum, an art school, a philanthropic family endowed it and it's called the Munsell Williams Proctor Institute, and when I was I think six years old, they started sending me there. And it's endowed and the children could go there for free and they were taught by local artists that people knew. Some of those artists. My parents had paintings on their wall, so we were taught by artists and I went through till I was 18 painting there and while it wasn't formal training in perspective and a lot of what you get an art school figured out, it was just the freedom to get a brush, have an easel and paint.

              And I, I never stopped loving it. I've always painted and I did think I couldn't paint, but I'm not going to give it up. I'm just going to do it.

Gina:      I saw that a portion of the sale of these paintings are going toward hurricane relief.

Kate:     First of all, I want to just say I'm so honored that the Bellamy let me show here and the staff is amazing and I just adore them all. They're lovely people. They're wonderful people in the Bellamy. I just really, really am honored to be at the Bellamy. And when I was evacuated during the hurricane I was like everybody else really depressed and upset about my neighbors that didn't leave in about everything and I thought I belonged to a lot of nonprofits down here and one is Cape Fear River Watch and I so admire the work they do and they try to save our river and protected in every way and in a really, really amazing organization and I thought I'm going to, I'm going to give a percentage to them.

              So yeah, I am doing that too in addition to the Bellamy. So I wanted to support them and I do, I do every year they have a fundraiser and I do give a painting to them for the last four years, a framed original work for their silent auction. And I'll continue to do that because that's something I can do to give, give to them. And I volunteer there too.

              I love my neighborhood and my neighbors were helpful to me along with my sons and anybody that walked in my house. As I told you, I'd say, please tell me what's wrong with this painting. And they would. And they'd say this like, like the orange one that everybody's in love with.

              My son. Mark said, well, why is this sand green? I said, no, no, it's tan, Mark. And he said, no mom, the sand is green. And I need people to tell me that because I can't see color the way I used to. And I love color. I see oranges better and yellows better, but once it goes into those darker colors, purple, gray, black, blue, violet, dark reds, I get them mixed up because my vision can't distinguish them. So I need a lot of help in my neighbors. One neighbor came and helped me frame some of the paintings. I was trying to frame and she helped me frame. Some of these are professionally framed that I did up in the Massachusetts, but all the ones more recently were framed by with the help of neighbors have a really wonderful neighborhood and they all came in to the reception and they're very supportive.

Gina:      And your vision is deteriorating?

Kate:     No. Um, no. Well, yes. I guess it is because I have, I'm a little weird, other weird problem called corneal dystrophy, which was diagnosed about 15 years ago and that's more age related that you can get that. It's edemia, swelling in your eye. And I was convinced that ... I still am losing ... I guess I still have a little bit of central left and um, and so I guess I lost a little of this year, kind of made me depressed, but it affects me. Light light is a problem for me. Darkness and lightness and when I walk outside on a bright sunny day I can barely see because of the glare. Walk outside and it's dark--can't see because it's dark. In my studio I have fluorescent lights, bright light, but it can't have direct light. The light retinal diseases are really impacted by light, light and dark.

              If people have been diagnosed in a lot of people as they age get macular degeneration and there is some treatment for some of it with laser and they're coming up with treatment for my eye condition because it's not manifest in the same way. There is no treatment. Although stem cells have worked with some Stargardt's people. But what I want to tell them is it's scary and I was younger and I know you can adapt more when you're younger to problems, but it's not the worst thing. It really isn't. If you have mobility, you learn to use a cane, you can still live a very full life and you can even paint.

Gina:      Do you fear becoming completely blind?

Kate:     I'm not going probably ever go into total darkness. And I'm not sure it'd be so upbeat if I was. When I was in Boston. I joined a group of people losing their vision. Most people had retinal things, retinitis Pigmentosa, full blindness, like Stevie Wonder had it, you know. The ones that were going into full blindness, they still had the desire to do ... I mean, they were wandering around Boston with their canes.

              I met a man who had dynamite blow up his face, lost an arm, lost both visions. And I met him in my thirties. He was a friend of a neighbor's and he, he, he lost an arm, he had a hook, like captain hook and he had a patch on one eye, his eye was so badly destroyed that had to patch it and couldn't show it. It was too disfigured and he had a glass eye and the whole time he was with me, he looked right straight at me where the eyes would be, where my eyes and his eyes would meet. And he had such dignity and he worked as a head of Braille at the Perkins School for the blind. He was in charge of their Braille, you know, making the books in Braille. And, one day I was riding the subway, and I could see him in those days. He had a cane, he got off at my stop, completely blind, all alone, and walked home and he was, he was my inspiration. Because he had all darkness at a very young age. He was in his twenties and he lost a lot more than his vision. He lost an arm and a hand ... And that man was such a model of how to be with a handicap and how to make people comfortable with it and not be afraid of it, you know, and not be afraid to talk about. But more importantly, the decorum to look at people even though you can't see them, to look at them so that they feel comfortable with you. He was amazing. There's a lot of inspirational people out there in the world.

Gina:      Yeah, and you're an inspirational person.

Kate:     Thank you. Thank you. I was born with one thing that works for me and I was very fortunate. I was born happy and optimistic and if, if I wasn't, I'm not sure I could cope with this disease as well as I do. And it was born creative and coming up with creative solutions of how to live my life. So I've been very fortunate and I'm not fully blind and so I'm very lucky in many ways.