Work of blind artist to be featured at Sternberg Museum

"Blind Ambition," an exhibition of paintings by visually impaired artist Lisa Fittipaldi, will open June 29 at Fort Hays State University's Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

Fittipaldi's work was chosen to complement "In the Dark," an exhibit on loan from the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History which opened May 25 at the Sternberg Museum. "In the Dark" uses interactive technology to explore the nature of various forms of darkness -- night, underground, in caves and in the deep sea.

But Fittipaldi's work is created in a different kind of darkness -- she lost her eyesight to optic neuritis beginning in 1993. Although at first her vision loss was 70 percent, her eyesight has continued to degenerate over the years, leaving her unable to perceive color, distance or dimension.

When her world first went dark, Fittipaldi sank into a depression for two years. In an effort to cheer her up, her husband bought her a set of children's watercolors. Despite having no previous background or training in art, Fittipaldi painted a series of four glass jars from memory. She entered this painting into a local competition for the visually handicapped and won an award.

From then on, Fittipaldi never looked back. Her first works were abstract, but she quickly progressed to animals, architecture and finally, human figures. After signing a contract with the Miami-based fine art retailer Wentworth Gallery, she switched media from watercolor to oil paints.

Watercolor affords Fittipaldi a few clues about the composition of her paintings: each color has a slightly different texture -- yellow is smooth; blue is gummy -- and because the paint dries quickly, she can put her fingers into the painted areas to judge spatial relationships.

With oils, though, she is forced to rely entirely on memory; oil paint dries slowly and there is no textural differentiation among pigments, so Fittipaldi instead memorizes the placement of each hue on her palette. She also places her arm in the same position each time so she doesn't lose her place in the painting.

Fittipaldi's signature style features vivid color in representational scenes, frequently involving figurative elements. The "Blind Ambition" exhibition includes everything from her very first watercolor painting of the jars to more recent works in oil, acrylic and mixed media. Her paintings are collected internationally and sell for up to $8,000.

Fittipaldi herself has garnered national and international attention; she has been featured on Oprah, in news segments on all three major televison networks, and in several newspapers, including the Miami Herald, the Dallas Morning News and the London Daily Telegraph.

Both "Blind Ambition" and "In the Dark" run through Sept. 8 at the Sternberg Museum, 3000 Sternberg Drive. Museum hours are 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 1-9 p.m. Sunday and Monday. Admission is $6 for adults (ages 13-59), $4 for children and senior citizens, and $3 for FHSU students. Children under age 4 are admitted free of charge.

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