Karen Powell of West Point and her leader dog Indy share a moment of kinship in Powell's studio space Wednesday. After losing most of her sight more than a decade ago, Powell took up painting as an outlet. Through years of trial and error, she has devised unique methods that work best for her. She created the pastel painting of sailboats on the easel. Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
This painting titled "Somewhere Off 50" by Karen Powell was inspired by a scene off Highway 50.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
Powell uses what peripheral vision she has and assistive technology including powerful magnifiers to create her art. With her face very close to the canvas, she works on small portions of each painting at a time, in short increments.
Photo by: Luisa Porter/Dispatch Staff
July 1, 2017 10:02:19 PM
Karen Powell is talented, straightforward, determined and witty. She is also blind. In one of her life's great ironies, it was in losing most of her sight that Powell discovered the visual artist inside.
"I can't stand for someone to say, oh, you can't do that," says the West Point woman who trained herself to paint with the same grit that has gotten her through the past harrowing years. First signs of trouble came in 2005, when the lines on spread sheets at work in Jackson started going everywhere they shouldn't. A progression of increasingly specialized doctors later, Powell was faced with harsh reality: While she might regain some peripheral vision, she would never see anything right in front of her again. She was advised to "get affairs in order" while she still had any sight.
"I didn't know where to start," she says, remembering the fear and confusion. "When you're an adult, especially a single adult, and you wake up one morning and you can't see ... what do you do?" That was only the first of many questions Powell needed answers for. Searching for them would entail physicians, treatments, the McBryde Rehabilitation Center for the Blind in Jackson, Leader Dogs for the Blind in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and a move back to her hometown of West Point in 2011. Lessons along the way were hard ones.
"I found out how broken health care is," Powell says with frankness. "If you're an adult, you're going to lose everything before you get approved for help."
Losing precious sight was overwhelming on multiple fronts -- physical, emotional and economic among them. On top of that, interactions and relationships were shifting. Suddenly, Powell found she was treated differently, not only by strangers, but within her own close circle. Her frustrations grew. And that's when a suggestion from a well-meaning soul dropped a seed in fertile ground.
"A very dear lady at church told me, you're very angry," Powell recounts. "She said why don't you do two things that will help you channel your anger." The first suggestion was to go to the state capitol when the legislature was in session and lobby for people with disabilities. Powell did.
"The second thing she said I should try to do is take up painting. ... I can't repeat what my answer was to that, but it was something along the lines of 'and just how am I supposed to do that?'"
In time, however, Powell began "to dabble." Relying on what peripheral vision she has, and with the aid of assistive technology like powerful magnifiers and other available devices, she absorbed all she could from online art instructor Wilson Bickford.
"Wilson explains everything. He explains the color mixing, the type of brush to use and how to use the brush, lighting and shadows," Powell says. "That was exactly the type of instruction that I needed."
It took literally years to grasp basic techniques of brush strokes, the artist admits. "I finally had to give myself permission to make mistakes, and I asked for and got feedback from Wilson and other artist friends. I had to get past my fear of letting people see my work before I actually started making major improvements."
At the easel
Oil paints are Powell's preferred medium, more forgiving of mistakes than acrylics, she says. To paint, she typically has her eye right at the canvas. "Many times I've gotten my face too close and ended up with paint on it," she chuckles. She tackles small sections of canvas at a time, in short increments.
"You do what you can, and you rest and take it back up the next day," she says. "You just keep at it." She often sends pictures of work in progress to friends to ask if a certain color "looks right."
When others encouraged Powell to let some of her paintings be posted to social media, it required a bit of bravery, she says, but the exposure eventually led to something she couldn't have imagined back in 2005: an exhibit of her artwork. In April, she had about 20 canvases in a joint show at the Louise Campbell Center for the Arts in West Point.
Julie Gray is president of the West Point/Clay County Arts Council Board.
"It's so very inspiring; I was just amazed at all the different paintings she had," Gray says. "Karen had some beautiful work, and I know she spends hours and hours on it." Gray added that Powell is active around West Point, even taking part in arts council theater productions. "And she always knows her lines," she laughs. "We've really enjoyed having her back in town and coming to a lot of different things."
Powell's mobility is possible, in great part, to Indy, the yellow lab leader dog at her side. "When I'm painting, she's there for pet therapy. When she's in uniform, she's my guide dog," the artist explains.
With Indy and a GPS unit, Powell is able to walk the short distance from home to frequent destinations in downtown West Point, like the post office and drug store. Their human/canine bond was first forged during a month of intense training at Leader Dogs for the Blind in Michigan. (Powell's first leader dog, Libby, developed a physical condition that prevented her from wearing equipment necessary for the job. Fortunately, Libby went to live with Lucille Armstrong in West Point, so Powell still gets to visit her. )
"The leader dog training is extremely serious. It's like boot camp!" says Powell. "But I love it up there. You're with all these other people who know how you feel, and they know you're not crazy."
The same person
Powell says she would never want anyone to go through what she has. Although a bit hesitant to share parts of her story publicly, her goal is to let someone else who is visually impaired know they aren't alone. "I don't like to really open myself up, but we're supposed to care about each other, aren't we?" she says.
When asked to name something she misses most since her loss of sight, she pauses for a moment before responding,
"I miss being able to look at my mom and see what she looks like. ... I don't even really know what I look like now." What she looks like to many in her community is an artist who can hold her own.
"Painting has reinforced the fact that I can find a way, or make a way, to do something," Powell says. "I hope to continue finding ways to do things. ... I'm still the same person, I just do things differently than some people do now."
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.