Retinitis pigmentosa is a rare genetic disease that breaks down the retina and causes vision loss as it progresses. Like many with the condition, Yvonne Shortt was diagnosed as a child when she realized that her sight was different from those in her family when they wandered into dark movie theaters or looked at the stars at night, and she struggled to do the same.
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Now legally blind as an adult, Shortt cultivates a visual art practice that involves shaping figurative busts from clay, moss, grasses, and other natural materials. “I make a face of a little girl, and I make that face for hours until I feel her breathing. I thought, if I can’t see, will I have that connection with it?” she says of experiencing her vision slowly diminish. “But there’s the tactility, the wetness of the clay, how it dries. I realized that I can still make objects even with my eyes closed.”
Filmmaker James Robinson dives into Shortt’s story in one part of the documentary series Adapt-Ability, produced by The New York Times. The film chronicles how Shortt experienced the progression of the disease and offers a simulation of what the world looks like from her body as she gradually loses clarity and her peripheral vision. Robinson explains:
Unlike the stereotype of the blind living in a lightless world, Ms. Shortt, like most other legally blind people, lives a nuanced existence between those who see well and those who can’t see a thing… She can see some things some of the time, depending on various factors, including the amount of ambient light, her distance from the object and the object’s location in her field of vision.
Although the condition has necessitated life adjustments like the use of a white cane, Shortt has come to understand her limitations as a benefit to her art, her other senses, and her ability to find compassion for those around her. (via Laughing Squid)