It was a birthday present that shouldn’t have been so hard to find. Last year, Betty Kyle wanted to gift her mother, a lifelong artist, with sculpting lessons. After a six-month search, however, Kyle was at the point of giving up when she came across Michael Sean Kirby’s website, which noted that he was a teacher at Lanier Middle School, and more to the point, gave private sculpting lessons. Kyle phoned him up and told him what she was looking for.
“That’s a great idea,” Kirby replied.
“I gotta tell you, she’s 94 and pretty much blind,” she warned.
Blind Artist Takes Up Sculpture at 94: Painter Charlotte Wood finds new ways to express herself after losing her sight.
For almost every one of her many years on this planet, art had been a part of Charlotte Wood’s life. Born in Hempstead, she grew up surrounded by her mother’s watercolors. Unsurprisingly, Wood became a painter herself, and at 18, left home for New Orleans to study art at Sophie Newcomb College. “When I came home from Newcomb I presented my father with a coffee cup that I had made,” Wood recalls, seated in the living room of her Memorial area assisted-living condo. “He told me he was very proud of my $20,000 coffee cup!”
In the years to come, she continued her studies at art schools in Chicago and Los Angeles, and then became a wife and mother, which altered but did not slow her artistic output. Wood designed and sewed clothes, knitted, did needlepoint, painted in oils, acrylic, and watercolors. Also, she cooked, baked, and entertained in the home, which, according to her daughter, smelled like a bakery and looked like an arts and crafts studio.
Which is why it was especially tough when, after suffering from cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration, Wood lost her eyesight 15 years ago. Her days of needlepoint and painting were done. She could still knit by feel, but that and listening to TV were not enough for a woman used to constant contact with her muse. For the first time, she began to succumb to boredom. In her darker moments, she would confide to her daughter that she felt like she was just taking up space.
Then, last year, Wood had an idea: she would enroll in a pottery class being offered by her retirement community. “Since I can’t see very well now, sculpting seemed the logical place for me to use what I’d been studying,” she recalls. That the class rekindled her lust for life was immediately obvious. “I saw how animated she was about getting back into something creative,” remembers her daughter.
Thus began Kyle’s six-month odyssey. She called the universities in search of a class that would take her mother—no luck. She called the museums big and small, art schools from Tomball to Pearland and all points in between. There was always some excuse, usually one heavily-laden with words like liability and handicapped. “‘We can’t provide any oversight for Charlotte; she’s blind,’” Kyle remembers hearing. “‘Our studio is not set up for the handicapped.’ Even the colleges said that. I’m sure they expected something like Charlie Chaplin or a bull in a china shop.”
Kirby expected only an artist with challenges—and fascinating ones at that. Years earlier, he himself had studied under a teacher who’d penned a thesis on blind painters that Kirby had always found intriguing. “Everybody thought he was crazy, but I thought it was cool,” he says. “It’s all about having contact with the material.”
Kyle’s birthday present was received warmly, and soon Wood was on her way to her first class at Kirby’s Independence Heights studio. Student and teacher developed a bond, Wood pronounced the experience wonderful, and has been going gangbusters ever since.
She says her work in sculpture is of a piece with her earlier artistic pursuits. “He tells me where I need to feel and examine what I’ve done, and I have had anatomy classes so I more or less know what the human body feels like even though I can’t really see it very well,” she says. Wood sculpts and sculpts, apparently unfazed by the fact that she’ll never see the results of her work. “I really enjoy the satisfaction of being able to use the knowledge that I’ve accumulated over lo these many years.”
Perhaps equally important, Wood no longer feels bored or in the way. “She is creating art and feels as though her life has purpose again,” Kyle says. “I think so many people with talent lie dormant in their later years. Nobody gives them the outlet…. There’s nobody there to say, ‘Look at what is inside of this person.’”
But there should be, because inside is a vessel, at least in Charlotte Wood’s case, that’s as full as it’s ever been. “There’s no time to shut down,” says Kirby. “Everyone should be and needs to be a lifelong learner. That’s part of the joy of life and it’s part of the adventure. And I think Charlotte’s very adventurous.”