Kitch­ener pain­ter Meghan Sims makes the most of her unique vi­sion

Kitch­ener artist Meghan Sims makes the most of her unique vi­sion

Grand Magazine - - ARTS & ENTERTAINM­ENT - BY BAR­BARA AGGERHOLM PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY ALISHA TOWNSEND

Meghan Sims picks up a tube of paint and runs her thumb over an at­tached small piece of fab­ric tape on which she has painted the colour.

Sims, an artist with a re­mark­able feel­ing for colour though she is fully colour-blind, lines the tube up with oth­ers on a ta­ble in her new stu­dio in the garage be­hind her house. The tubes are num­bered: 1 is the dark­est colour; 18 is the light­est.

“Don’t tell me what the colour is,” she says as a vis­i­tor stud­ies one of the num­bered tubes.

The tubes of paint are or­dered as she per­ceives the colours, or as she bet­ter de­scribes it, in a way that is “true to my eyes.”

“I don’t know what any of the colours are, re­ally,” she says. “I’m see­ing a gra­di­ent of light when I look at the colour on the tube. I num­ber them ac­cord­ing to the amount of light I see.”

Sims, 38, has a rare visual con­di­tion called achro­matop­sia that pre­vents her from see­ing colours. She sees in shades of black and white only and at short range. Her eyes are ex­tremely sen­si­tive to light.

On this day, she wears pre­scrip­tion red-tinted glasses that help block the light.

They high­light an ex­pres­sive face with shoul­der-length red­dish-brown hair and an en­gag­ing smile.

Sims’ ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with colour is a sea change from her ear­lier work when she painted in shades of black and white. Her “Ur­ban Night Scapes” se­ries fea­tures beau­ti­ful, some­times haunt­ing scenes with pin­points or washes of light – a lam­plit park path­way; sil­hou­ettes of pedes­tri­ans on a busy city side­walk.

A paint­ing called “Court­land at David” is an ex­am­ple of how she sees dur­ing the day; it’s a mostly white street scene with ghostly cars and trees. “I would call it a wash of light with spo­radic de­tails that the brain has to put to­gether,” Sims says.

Even the whitest tube of paint couldn’t con­vey the ac­tual bright­ness that she ex­pe­ri­enced on that spring day when she took the pho­to­graph that would help her paint the out­door scene.

“This is not a great ex­am­ple of how bright it re­ally is,” she says. “It’s blind­ing, it hurts, it’s dis­ori­ent­ing. I suf­fered through this.”

Her newer, colour paint­ings are a sign that she has dropped what she calls a “re­bel­lious streak” that saw her spurn the use of colour un­til about 2016.

“I didn’t see colour so I didn’t use it,” she says. “I had no in­ter­est.”

Be­fore 2016, she used colour only as an Ex­pres­sion­ist pain­ter would – for emo­tional un­der­tone, she says. “Colour meant to me an emo­tion I at­tached to it.”

Even­tu­ally, how­ever, art school, her ma­tur­ing as an artist and a life­long fas­ci­na­tion with light drew her to­ward ex­per­i­ment­ing with the tubes of acrylic and oil paints that she had turned her back on.

In 2016, Sims had a suc­cess­ful show­ing of her first colour paint­ings, a se­ries called “Colour Blind Colour,” at the gallery at Kitch­ener Pub­lic Li­brary’s main branch.

Sims’ in­ves­ti­ga­tion of colour has opened up op­por­tu­ni­ties to talk about her unique visual per­cep­tion. She wants to help ed­u­cate peo­ple about the dif­fer­ences in per­cep­tion that ex­ist in the world, and she wants to in­crease tol­er­ance for those dif­fer­ences, par­tic­u­larly when they in­volve a dis­abil­ity.

In Oc­to­ber, she hosted a CBC crew in her home work­ing on a doc­u­men­tary about colour for “The Na­ture of Things.” She has also been fea­tured in other doc­u­men­taries, such as “Do You See What I See?” on BBC’s Hori­zon, a science and phi­los­o­phy pro­gram.

In 2018, Sims was hon­oured to be cho­sen to de­sign a fine sil­ver coin and bronze medal­lion set for the Royal Cana­dian Mint that marks the 100th an­niver­sary of the Cana­dian Na­tional In­sti­tute for the Blind.

A green iris of an eye, like a set­ting sun or ris­ing moon, is at the coin’s cen­tre, rep­re­sent­ing the pas­sage of time and “light and hope for the fu­ture,” Sims says. Green is her favourite colour in the way that it re­flects light. If she were to de­scribe green, “it would be calm and nat­u­ral and the smell of fresh leaves and grass be­ing cut.”

Seven Jack pines on the coin and medal­lion rep­re­sent CNIB’s seven found­ing mem­bers. Sims chose the iconic tree be­cause it is a sur­vivor, a tree that can flour­ish af­ter a for­est fire.

“I wanted the coin to rep­re­sent the strength and re­silience that peo­ple liv­ing with vi­sion loss and blind­ness have.”

Both coins have the num­ber 100 en­graved on them in braille.

These days, Sims vol­un­teers as an art teacher for CNIB clients.

She also led a colour work­shop in Kitch­ener that in­tro­duced colour-sighted peo­ple to the no­tion of see­ing in a dif­fer­ent way. “My idea was to get the old 3-D movie glasses, with one red and one blue lens, to dis­tort how they see,” she says.

She dis­cov­ered that the ex­per­i­ment made some peo­ple un­com­fort­able. “I find that peo­ple don’t like their vi­sion dis­torted.”

For her, how­ever, ex­per­i­men­ta­tion is a fa­mil­iar state of be­ing. “I think I’m al­ways out­side the com­fort zone.”

In a lovely, cen­tury-old brick home in Kitch­ener with two res­i­dent cats, Felix and Os­car, paint­ings in black and white and misty grey share wall space with those with vivid colours and de­tails.

A paint­ing from the “Colour Blind Colour” se­ries fea­tures a dark fig­ure stand­ing in front of a colour­ful graf­fiti­cov­ered brick wall. An­other shows a clerk grad­ing ap­ples in front of a down­town gro­cery store. The dark-haired wo­man is wear­ing blue; the ap­ples in a brown

bushel bas­ket are red and yel­low.

She may not see colour the way that oth­ers do, but it’s ev­ery­where in her home; in the yel­low sun­flow­ers in a blue vase on the kitchen counter; the red plaid shirt she’s wear­ing; the dis­play case with a mounted Blue Mor­pho but­ter­fly; a fish that rep­re­sents her own glass-blow­ing work.

The Blue Mor­pho but­ter­fly, with its iri­des­cent blue wings, speaks to her fas­ci­na­tion with light when she was a teenager vis­it­ing the Cam­bridge But­ter­fly Con­ser­va­tory.

“I was so struck by the elec­tric vi­brance of this,” Sims says. “There is just some­thing al­most neon about it; that I think would be neon.

“To me, it’s lu­mi­nous. It’s like a glow, a very cool glow. But doc­tors say there is no way I can pos­si­bly see that. I think it’s the way the wave­length re­flects back to my eye.

“I guess a but­ter­fly’s wings are pris­matic,” she says. “There’s some­thing about the way the light bounces off that par­tic­u­lar ge­netic struc­ture.”

In­side her new stu­dio – part of the garage trans­formed for her by a handy neigh­bour – there are colour-in­fused paint­ings on the walls and a strik­ing black-and-white night scene of the moon cast­ing long shad­ows through a for­est of tall trees.

A to­mato and egg­plant sit on a ta­ble near a colour paint­ing of the egg­plant. “I chose 10 (tube) and black,” she says, nod­ding at the egg­plant. “I look at how the light hits it.”

The stu­dio is a cher­ished space, a bit like the moon­lit for­est where she loves to go. Here, she can work in low light. A string of twin­kle lights hangs over a pat­terned greyand-white pat­terned rug. The door’s white paint has sparkles in it.

Sim­i­larly, the moon­lit for­est “is my place of com­fort, my place of refuge. This is where I’m most at ease, at night be­cause of low light and be­ing around trees makes me happy.

“The moon is one thing I’ll never get sick of look­ing at.”

She lis­tens to mu­sic while she paints. Her favourite poet and singer is the late Gord Downie of the Trag­i­cally Hip. “He’s got a way of de­scrib­ing his sur­round­ings,” she says. A large por­trait that she painted to hon­our Downie looks down at her as she works.

“Mu­sic is sort of a driv­ing force,” Sims says. “It’s my main in­spi­ra­tion be­sides the moon.”

It took courage for Sims to be­gin ex­per­i­ment­ing with colour. Hav­ing grown up with what was gen­er­ally re­garded as a “dis­abil­ity,” she was self-con­scious at first about ex­plor­ing the un­known.

“Any­one with a dis­abil­ity has been raised to see a dis­abil­ity and that they’re ‘less than’ in some way and that does a num­ber on you. Be­ing afraid of colour was only nat­u­ral. I was com­par­ing my­self to peo­ple who use colour.

“Once I got over that, it was re­ally free­ing.”

Fine art pho­tog­ra­pher Pa­trick Wey, a

men­tor when she was learn­ing how to use pho­tographs to help her see de­tail, en­cour­aged her to be her­self; to por­tray a re­al­ity that is dif­fer­ent from every­one else’s.

Use your unique vi­sion, Wey urged her. “I said, ‘If you’re paint­ing, use what­ever feels right,’ ” says Wey, an artist, en­tre­pre­neur and in­ven­tor who now lives on Van­cou­ver Is­land. “A lot of artists are of­ten try­ing to use unique colours in dif­fer­ent ar­eas that aren’t nor­mally used. Go wild with it. Some­thing will come of it.

“I made her aware that what she has is a unique­ness rather than a dis­abil­ity,” Wey says. “She’s do­ing things other artists would re­ally have to strive to do.

“She thinks out-of-the-box. I didn’t have to teach her that. I’d say, ‘Keep push­ing and de­scribe in your art what you see. It’s not what other peo­ple see.’ ”

Sims was three years old when she was di­ag­nosed with achro­matop­sia. When she re­ceived her first red-tinted glasses, she ran ahead of her fa­ther in the shop, not need­ing to hold his hand for the first time.

But the red glasses and her unique vi­sion re­sulted in daily bul­ly­ing at school – un­til she got red con­tact lenses when she was in Grade 4.

That changed things. She was able to hide her dif­fer­ences. “My main aim in life was not to be picked on, to be pop­u­lar. I gave up a lot of who I was to serve that.

“All of a sud­den, I was part of the crowd that had bul­lied me.”

She con­tin­ued to try to fit in dur­ing high school. “I car­ried on, de­ter­mined to be pop­u­lar and not be outed for be­ing dif­fer­ent. It was a full-time job try­ing to hide and not get­ting what I needed at all” in terms of help with school work.

Af­ter high school, Sims worked as a per­sonal trainer, well fa­mil­iar with mat­ters of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy and ex­er­cise since her fa­ther, now a golf teach­ing pro­fes­sional, was a high school phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion teacher then.

She was paint­ing for her­self when a friend asked to ex­hibit one of her works at a show. A gallery owner spot­ted Sims’ black-and­white paint­ing and en­cour­aged Sims to ex­hibit more. Peo­ple bought them.

It gave her fo­cus. “All of a sud­den, I had this rea­son to get up,” Sims says. She quotes the lyrics of an Ani DiFranco song: “Art is the rea­son I get up in the morn­ing, but my def­i­ni­tion ends there. It doesn’t seem fair that I’m liv­ing for some­thing I can’t even de­fine.”

At age 32, Sims en­tered Flem­ing Col­lege’s fine arts pro­gram at the Hal­ibur­ton School of Art and De­sign where she stud­ied paint­ing, draw­ing and glass-blow­ing.

“I’m very glad I did it, but it was tough,” she says. With help from in­sight­ful in­struc­tors, artists Kim-Lee Kho and Kal Honey, she was able to forge ahead in the pro­gram where she dis­cov­ered a pas­sion for glass­blow­ing.

“Not every­one man­ages to push through the way she did. Not every­one chal­lenges

her­self the way she did,” Kho says.

Sims was a smart, self-pos­sessed stu­dent who was skil­ful at in­ter­pret­ing what her eyes were see­ing, Kho says. Eyes are in­for­ma­tion gath­er­ers. Most of the per­cep­tion of sight hap­pens in the brain.

“She was the proof. It’s only to a lim­ited de­gree about the or­gans of sight. It’s re­ally what we do to it once it gets to our brain,” Kho says.

The artists were not so sur­prised that Sims, “an in­de­pen­dent spirit,” would show a pref­er­ence for glass-blow­ing.

A bright glass-blow­ing fur­nace is only one of the chal­lenges Sims faces.

“I’m a moth to the flame,” Sims says with a smile. “I can’t stay away from it. I need to do it. It’s a light thing. Colour comes into it. The ac­tual skill is very, very dif­fi­cult and you have to have a lot of sight.”

Artist John Kep­kiewicz at his Thorn Glass Stu­dio in Hawkesvill­e has worked out an in­ge­nious way to help Sims “see” the end of the long tube. It in­volves a mir­ror and re­flected light.

Kep­kiewicz, one of Canada’s se­nior glass masters, has been teach­ing Sims the way of glass in the stu­dio over the past five years.

“Glass is all hand-eye co-or­di­na­tion,” he says. “It’s mus­cle mem­ory. It’s do­ing the same thing over and over. It’s tim­ing. Sec­onds can mean suc­cess or hav­ing it drop on the floor.

“One of Meghan’s chal­lenges is that she’s light-sen­si­tive. You’ve got a fur­nace you’ve got to look at. I can’t imag­ine what she sees.”

But Kep­kiewicz says Sims has a knack for glass-blow­ing and he ad­mires her creativ­ity, de­ter­mi­na­tion and work ethic.

“I think she’s an in­cred­i­bly de­ter­mined wo­man and very tal­ented. She’s very smart,” he says. “Meghan likes a chal­lenge and she doesn’t like to give up.

“I think some peo­ple might think that it’s to­tally im­pos­si­ble for her to do this. That’s not go­ing to stop her.”

Sims will con­tinue learn­ing about glass with Kep­kiewicz. “I hope my fu­ture is glass. I’m go­ing to keep paint­ing. This is my next fron­tier,” she says.

“I’m go­ing to take time now to look for­ward to just get­ting lost wher­ever the creativ­ity takes me.”

In 2017, her in­ter­est in trees took her to British Columbia so she could sit in its forests and take pho­tographs. She soaked in the at­mos­phere from an old growth for­est in­tro­duced to her by a friend who works

with Parks Canada.

“It was magic,” she says. “If you went on a path, you could fall through three lev­els of moss.”

Sims had never met any­one with achro­matop­sia un­til she was con­tacted by par­ents of a lit­tle boy who had the con­di­tion. She trav­elled to the Nether­lands af­ter fin­ish­ing her de­gree and met the fam­ily, with whom she stays in touch.

One day, Sims would like to visit a tiny is­land six de­grees north of the equa­tor where colour-blind­ness in the pop­u­la­tion is the norm rather than the ex­cep­tion. Sci­en­tist Oliver Sacks wrote about the is­land in the book, “The Is­land of the Col­or­blind,” which her sci­en­tist un­cle had given to her par­ents. Sacks’ videos also fol­low his jour­ney to Pin­ge­lap where he de­scribes, for ex­am­ple, how peo­ple fish when the sun goes down.

Sims is cu­ri­ous about what it would be like to “be the norm.”

She has read about ex­per­i­men­tal gene ther­apy and seen videos fea­tur­ing an­i­mals that re­ceived such ther­apy re­sult­ing in colour vi­sion, and one about a don­key with achro­matop­sia that raced through a maze af­ter the surgery.

She thinks about what it would be like to be able to see colour and def­i­ni­tion as oth­ers do.

“Say it works; my whole world would to­tally change,” she says. “Ini­tially, it would be fright­en­ing. I’ve based my artis­tic ca­reer on per­cep­tion and my per­cep­tion.”

She’s open to ask­ing ques­tions about the re­search.

At the mo­ment, how­ever, she’s spend­ing more time help­ing oth­ers with visual chal­lenges so they don’t feel like hid­ing, as she once did, and she’s ex­plor­ing how she can com­mu­ni­cate her unique vi­sion.

“It’s so hurt­ful not to be your authen­tic self,” Sims says.

Meghan Sims sketches un­der the watch­ful eye of a glass-blown fish, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an­other of her artis­tic pas­sions.

A por­trait Meghan Sims painted to hon­our Gord Downie of the Trag­i­cally Hip looks over her workspace, which in­cludes the tubes of paint placed in or­der based on how she per­ceives the colours.

Paint­ings by Meghan Sims NIGHT PARK and WRONG WAY

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