Article Printed in "The Dallas Morning News"  November 1998
About Lisa Fittipaldi

By Tom Sime

Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News

 

"Preparing the Kiln:" by Lisa Fittipaldi

Lisa Fittipaldi is a blind watercolor painter. And if that sounds like a joke, it suits her fine, for she just as easily be a blind comedian.

After all, back in her sighted days, if someone had asked Ms. Fittipaldi to see the work by a blind artist, "I would have said, ĎHmm. Is there a hockey game on?í "

Actually, itíd be far easier for this natural cutup to be a professional comic than to take up watercolor, a medium even some sighted artists find too difficult to control. And Ms. Fittipaldi is not only legally blind, but "completely" blind. "I see snow, like static on a TV screen," she says. But her paintings are perfectly realized, perfectly realistic. Still, though others may marvel, the paintings are "hard for me to appreciate," Ms Fittipaldi jokes. "I canít see Ďem."

Her singular situation has not gone unnoticed. Her first Dallas show, "Wonders of the Mindís Eye," opens Thursday at Florence Art Gallery in Dallas. Sheíll be demonstrating her technique at the reception with a crew from NBCís Today show on hand to tape the event for a program tentatively scheduled for December.

Before committing to the segment, Today producers put Ms. Fittipaldi through a battery of tests to verify her total blindness. And those who get  beyond skepticism usually see Ms. Fittipaldiís situation as miraculous, including her husband of 25 years, Al Fittipaldi, a retired military officer who manages her career.

But during a recent interview at the gallery, Ms. Fittipaldi scoffed at any mystical interpretation of her gift. "Iím very grounded," she says. "Iím not the kind of woman you buy flowers for."

Mr. Fittipaldi scoffs at that but acknowledges that his wife, a former certified public accountant, "was concerned with numbers. Numbers were her whole life."

" The stock market - I could quote you every stock value, totally analyzing whatís going on," she says. That skill for juggling numbers has proved "tremendously" helpful to the development of her painting.

Ms. Fittipaldi had no background or even interest in art before the onset of her blindness five years ago, when a disorder called optic neuritis cut off the blood supply to her optic nerves, which atrophied, leaving no path for visual information to reach her brain.

"I went from 20/20 to nothing in six months," she says. "I thought, ĎWhat am I going to do with my life?í and decided Iíd be a world famous potter."

She went to a pottery class, but found it "too easy." She also tried sculpture, and sold some pieces, but "itís not a challenge. Everybody accepts it. Itís comprehensible." Painting was different, and what got Ms. Fittipaldi motivated was "people saying to me, ĎYou canít do this,í " she says. "That really raises my hackles."

She started out doing abstraction, "but people would say, ĎOh, well, youíre blind - you should be able to do abstraction. You donít have any real talent.í So I said, ĎOK, Iíll try to do reality.í "

Now, after years of rapid development, Ms. Fittipaldi produces extremely detailed, realistic scenes of Paris streets stretching into the distance. Groups of Indian dancers. Elaborate still life's. Balinese shadow puppets. And now sheís returned to abstraction as well, calling it "more fun."

Still, itís all hard work. Ms. Fittipaldi begins with paper or canvas attached to a wooden board with staples around the edge. "Itís like a grid - I use the staples so that I know Iím in this quadrant of the painting, or this quadrant of the painting," she says. "I guess itís like, ĎHow does somebody get around with a cane without any vision?í Itís a mental map."

When watercolor pigments are wet, Ms. Fittipaldi can use her fingertips "to tell if itís cobalt blue or Windsor yellow. Each paint has a different textural quality," she says. But once the watercolor has dried on paper, "itís totally flat," and she canít detect the finished product at all.

She likes to feel othersí work, however. The former "casual museum viewer" who preferred sports and economics is now "fascinated by other peopleís art," 

she says. "Iíll go up and put my hands on somebodyís oil painting. Now I want to see it all, Iím sorry I didnít take the opportunity before."

But sheís brutally critical of her own paintings. "Theyíre not anywhere near what I want to do," she says, even as the oohs and aahs fill the gallery. "I want to paint a cast of a thousand; I want to paint the people in the Ganges River, with everyone having a face and an emotion. Thatís my projection of where I want to be."

Reactions to her painting range from disbelief to anger, an emotional spectrum almost understandable in light of her workís near-incomprehensibility. But like many other blind people, she also encounters hostility under the most mundane circumstances, as if some among the sighted donít even want to be reminded that the blind exist.

" I get a lot of roadblocks," she says.

"Iíve been to the symphony, and people tell me I should be at home, that kind of thing. Itís such a rushed society, no one wants to take the time to hold the elevator door open a little longer."

But such experiences havenít made her cynical, though; on the contrary. "When I had vision, I wasnít attuned to people at all," Ms. Fittipaldi says. "I didnít care very much about them, didnít really think about them. Now I find that when I have to work harder to communicate with them, I like people a lot better.

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EXHIBIT INFORMATION

"Wonders of the Mindís Eye" featuring works by Lisa Fittipaldi, opens Thursday at Florence Art Gallery, 2500 Cedar Springs. After the reception, a rotating exhibit of Ms. Fittipaldiís work will be on view through February 1999. Admission to the reception, sponsored by the Dallas Museum of Artís PM League, is $10, with proceeds going to the museum. Call (214) 754-7070.

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