At Libby Smith’s Magical Beings at downtown Orlando’s CityArts Factory, there is a 12-foot triptych. The three paintings together comprise a 12-foot landscape of lifeless tree trunks after a hurricane.
“I saw these gorgeous dead trees,” said the artist. “And the art teacher I was with looked at me and said, ‘What are you doing? They’re dead.’”
When Smith completed the painting three years later in 2006, the art teacher returned.
“He said, ‘I don’t see how you saw that.’”
But that’s the trick. Smith painted the piece one inch at a time. To her, it was a series of “beautiful lights and darks … And there were no leaves to mess it up for me”.
She has never seen the full piece.
The Orlando resident has lost 90% of her vision due to a rare condition called pars planitis. The disease causes inflammation in the back of the eye. “They say it’s like a cigarette smouldering behind the eye, filled with little particles scratching the back of your eye up,” said Smith.
Smith is legally blind. On an eye chart, “I can’t see the big E,” she said.
Born in 1964, Smith says art was always the profession she was drawn to. The nuns at her private school in Palatka, Florida, the United States, began submitting her art for contests. She says she won her first awards in fifth grade.
That was also the year that her vision started to decline. “I went to the eye doctor at least once a week at first, depending on what they were doing to me,” she said.
Smith’s favourite activities often involved the outdoors. “I was a river rat,” she said. “I loved being in the sun and swimming.” In high school, she would wear a bikini under her clothes and work on a crab fishing boat after class.
But as her disease progressed, she became too light-sensitive to spend time outside. “I cannot go out in the sun at all,” she said.
Her house is mostly lit by sky lights, and even those make certain corners of her home too bright at different points of the day. All her blinds are closed and she doesn’t turn on lights except for other people. “I have no use for lights,” she said. She walks barefoot. “I have brailed my floor,” meaning she feels where she is by the grooves in her tiles. “I move very purposefully.”
Still, Smith has never lost her love for art. She was employed as the in-house artist for The Gainesville Sun newspaper. “Until I smashed my car into a truck at a stoplight,” she said. “That was the last time I drove.”
She mostly sells art through her website, libbysmithstudio.com.
Her painting process has become more difficult over the years. “I work with my face about one to two inches from the canvas,” she said.
Can she even see the finished product? “Only if they’re small.”
Smith says throughout her life she has lost her vision in chunks. She says what usually happens is that her vision will drop to nearly zero for no more than a minute. “And what it means is that I’m going to lose some more vision and have to re-adjust,” she said.
Then in the past year, Smith had an experience that changed her perspective. “I woke up and had no vision for 16 hours,” she said. Though it eventually came back, it was even more diminished.
This was a wake-up call for Smith. “What I realised was that I hadn’t done anything that I wanted to do,” she said. “I’d been doing things that people would like and that people would possibly buy. If this is my last chance to paint, I want to paint what I want to paint.”
What Smith wanted to paint was fairies. “Everybody is so unique and so amazing, and everyone is so mean to each other right now,” she said. “So I said I’m going to paint some magic.”
Smith worked from sketches she did of people, adding wings because “people don’t want to see pictures of other people”. The work was slow-going.
“About every five minutes, I was running out to my partner and asking, ‘Could you please look at this and tell me what this looks like?’ I had no clue how things were connecting. I couldn’t tell if one end connects to another end.”
When Smith asked her daughter for help in naming her fairies, her daughter started to cry. “She said, ‘This is you. Every one of these is you. You are telling the story of your life in mythical proportions,’” said Smith.
Smith decided she wanted the show to reveal more about herself. Hence the gallery will be kept mostly dark except for spotlights on the paintings. “To me, this is not an art show,” she said. “I’m letting people into my life. … I’m essentially telling how I feel and what’s going on in my life using these magical beings.”
Magical Beings: That Which Grows From What Was Lost will hang through Oct 13, 2018. For people who missed the opening reception at September’s Third Thursday gallery hop, there will be another opening on Saturday, Sept 29 (6-9pm, 29 S. Orange Ave., Orlando, free, 3rdthu.com).
Smith knows that one day she will be completely blind. She hopes this show, her first solo exhibition, will earn her enough money to set up her studio for sculpture, which she can do by feel.
But whatever the medium, Smith will keep depicting people. “I love people,” she said. “They’re the only thing I can get close enough to. I have to bump into them to do it. But they’re the one thing I’ve actually seen. I’ve never seen a tree. I’ve never seen the sky. Or the moon or stars. All I’ve seen are pictures. I’ve never seen the life in it.
“I feel like every person is magical.” – Tribune News Service/The Orlando Sentinel/Trevor Fraser