Vision problems opened award-winning artist’s eyes

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By Karen Rorie

When Brooke Lanier was 6 years old, she wrote in her journal, "When I grow up, I want to be an artist and paint pretty pictures."

Today, at 24, Lanier is an award-winning artist in spite of eye problems that limit her vision.

A Rochester native, Lanier won second prize in the "Driven" art exhibition, an awards program for emerging artists with disabilities. Lanier’s entry, "Staring," is a Snellen Eye Chart that delivers a message. It reads, "I cannot see you, but I know you are staring at me." It is part of an "eye art" series Lanier created following a retinal detachment during her senior year in college at the Art Institute of Chicago.


As part of her recovery from surgery to repair the retina, she had to keep herself in a head-down, face-down position for six weeks. Exposure to light caused pain, so she kept her eyes closed most of the time.

"Being led around in this crazy posture with my eyes closed made me kind of paranoid," she says. She knew people had to be looking at her. "It really made me think about how we’re supposed to look, or not look, at people with disabilities."

During her recuperation at her parents’ house, she would think of phrases, then edit them until they were the exact number of letters on an official eye chart. She drew the letters by hand, modified them on a computer and created "Staring" and eight other charts that are the same size and scale as those in a doctor’s office.

She also painted in her parents’ garage, creating tactile, textural pieces with acrylic paint by "smacking the paint around." The paintings were intended to show what her vision looked like.

"She didn’t wallow," says Lanier’s mother, Mary. "She has a strong spirit about her."

Born with a cataract, a lazy eye and extreme nearsightedness, Lanier has always had trouble seeing. Following the retinal detachment, caused by a gradual change in the shape of her eye, she lost the vision in the center and sides of her right eye, leaving her with what she describes as a "doughnut of vision." But, she says, "I’m grateful. I could have lost the whole eye."

"Staring" is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s S. Dillon Ripley Center in Washington, D.C. Lanier and her parents, Bill and Mary, recently returned from Washington, where they saw the exhibition and attended a reception for the winners. "It’s surreal to see your child’s art hanging in a beautifully curated exhibit at the Smithsonian," says Mary Lanier. "We’re just so proud of her."

In addition to an exhibition, Lanier received a $6,000 prize, which she will use to "sustain my art practice," she says. She plans to begin working on a master’s degree in studio and mixed-media art in 2008.

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