Vision impaired artist paints eye conditions | Guide Dogs NSW/ACT

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18 April, 2016

Vision impaired artist paints eye conditions

Artist Susan Oxenham standing in front of her paintings which are on exhibition at the Penrith Library

Susan Oxenham saw more than the inner most layer of her eye when an ophthalmologist gave her a scan of her retina.

The artist, who is blind in her right eye and only has light perception in her left, found the image of the macular, which is the central part of the retina responsible for fine detailed vision needed for activities such as driving, reading and distinguishing colour, so interesting she decided to paint it.

"That was the prototype for a series of paintings of the macular," Ms Oxenham said. "In 2006, I had three large canvasses donated to me and I set myself a project to paint three different eye conditions," she said.

Ms Oxenham was able to obtain copies of scans showing a normal macula and another that had Diabetic Retinopathy, and her fascination with the eye grew. Since then she has painted many more pieces including one that was shipped to an Alabama clinic in the USA on commission.

To get started her brother, John Oxenham, who is a sculptor, created a template for her and assisted her to begin the creative process. "It really has been a great collaboration between us," Ms Oxenham said.

This month, her paintings of the eye along with some works she has created with a long cane will be on display at Penrith City Library in an exhibition titled, 'Longsighted at the Library'. "I hope it will be both an educational and creative experience for visitors," she said.

For the past 14 years, Ms Oxenham has been assisted by Guide Dogs NSW/ACT's free orientation and mobility services in learning how to move around her environment safely and independently using a long cane.

Her Guide Dogs Orientation and Mobility Specialist, who has tailored a program to meet her individual needs and has delivered this in her home, is also teaching her how to use a mini-guide, a device that uses ultrasound to detect objects.

With 28 Australians diagnosed with uncorrectable vision loss, including nine who become blind each day, Ms Oxenham said the exhibition would challenge visitors to think about their eye health and the need for regular checks.

Artist Susan Oxenham pointing to a painting with her cane. She used an old long cane to create the artwork.

Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness and major vision loss in Australia. One in seven Australians over the age of 50 years (1 million people) has some evidence of the disease and the incidence increases with age.

In the absence of effective treatment and prevention measures, the number of Australians with some evidence of macular degeneration will increase to 1.7 million by 2030.

"How many people know what a macular looks like if you have Diabetic Retinopathy? How many people know what a normal macular looks like? No one really thinks about these things, but it is really important to," Ms Oxenham said.

Ms Oxenham has undergone a number of surgeries in an effort to save her sight after she was born with a rare genetic condition called, Von Hippel-Lindau.

"My parents were told when I was two-years-old that I would probably go blind, so they bought me a blackboard and chalk and encouraged me to draw. My father was great in building my self-expression," she said.

This creativity led to her using her old long canes as a painting tool. "Once the cane is no longer useful and needs to be replaced, instead of sending it to landfill, I found a second purpose for it. I've always looked at how different items can be used for purposes other than what they were intended for," she said.

Ms Oxenham straps paint to the cane and walks as she would while using it on large canvasses. "The flow of the paint depends on the heat of the day or how quickly you are going," she said.

To know which colour she is using, each tin has been marked with the help of friends and family.

'Longsighted at the Library' runs from April 2-29 at the Penrith City Library, 601 High Street, Penrith. The exhibition was officially opened by University of Technology Sydney, Associate Lecturer, Mara Girabaldi, Orthoptics Graduate School of Health.

For more information about Guide Dogs NSW/ACT's free Orientation and Mobility Services visit guidedogs.com.au.