Taranaki's Pauline Harper is believed to be the first legally blind person to graduate with a visual arts degree. She tells Witt journalism student Nadia Stadnik what art has meant to her and how she now wants to give back to the disabled community.
Emerging from her studio space in New Plymouth, Pauline Harper is a bundle of energy, moving confidently from one art work to the next, deftly running her hands over pieces that are part painting, part sculpture.
The next moment she's bustling down the corridor and wrestling with the meaty padlock to a gallery space housing her latest exhibition Biography in Paint which tells her life story.
Harper halts momentarily, taking a second or two to consider the work that is most significant to her. It's not here, "it's hiding in the garage at home".
"My very first self portrait I had to draw, I had to sit there and look at myself in the mirror and suddenly I had to look at who I was and I didn't like who I was," says the 50-year-old mother of four.
"I was this pathetic person. I was scared of everybody and everything. I'd been running for so many years and had no confidence whatsoever and when I had to look at myself in the mirror suddenly I could see that, and I wanted to change."
But Harper doesn't see her reflection like you or I do; born legally blind she only has three per cent eyesight.
"I see in black and white. Somehow I see very similar to a camera," she explains. "I definitely notice a lot; more than the average person does."
Harper says while most people paint from what they see she paints from what she remembers from dreams.
"I have very vivid dreams and when I wake up I remember them so I paint from what I see in my dreams. I'm assuming I dream with normal eyesight. I don't know - I've never had it so I can't make a comparison."
Raised in what she describes as an unloving home and the victim of domestic abuse in her first marriage, Harper initially didn't find art school all that accepting either.
"I've had tutors telling me to my face that I should be at home and the government even paid me a benefit to be at home instead of at school," remembers Harper. "One even said, 'Blind! I can't teach a blind person'."
But one tutor at Witt where she was enrolled in a Bachelor of Visual Arts saw potential in her work which has been described as "outsider art" or "naive art".
Donna Willard-Moore refused to let Harper throw in the towel when at one stage she walked away from her studies.
"She was having a very bad time at that point but she was only a couple of papers from completing her qualification and I didn't see any reason why she couldn't do it," says the painting tutor.
Willard-Moore describes Harper with fondness and admiration, and remembers that when she first met her she knew straight away she was the real thing.
"I knew she was going to be an artist. She had that intensity about her and she was always doing art."
Willard-Moore thought it fascinating that Harper found it easier to work in the dark, and the tutor had to unravel just how her protege worked.
"She had to explain what she could and couldn't see. It was an understanding of what she could and couldn't do," she explains.
"She was pretty systematic in her exploration so all the different ways that she could make textures, and what kind of coating she could put on to keep them stable so people could touch them without long-term deterioration."
According to a Canadian study, Harper was the first legally blind person to receive a fine arts degree when she graduated in 2009. She uses a gesso paint mixture to build textured pieces which often incorporate figurines and various mixed media including sand and wood.
"I just like to break barriers, and art is not usually meant to be touched so I made it touchable. We learn through touching and people like to touch. It's just another way of learning," says Harper.
Willard-Moore is in awe of Harper's achievement and the fact that she now wants to give back to the disabled community through the Hands On Art studio.
"She has some amazing gifts beside art. She shares what she has learned with people to improve their lives. Pauline has a very positive effect on everybody around her. It's rather astonishing," she says.
Harper says the studio and gallery space in New Plymouth's Metro Plaza was set up with the express purpose of giving other people who have suffered discrimination chances she never had.
"What I'd like to believe is that there are people out there with a better life, perhaps, because I've been able to guide them in that direction," says Harper.
One person who has benefited from Harper's tuition is Tarryn Wallace, who also lives with a visual impairment. Wallace was taken aback by all Harper's knowledge and her willingness to pass it on.
"Pauline has been amazing. She's really inspirational and has offered so much help and advice," says Wallace.
"She's shown me how to do things that's made it easier to paint. She's pretty much taught me you can do anything if you put your mind to it and not let your disability get in the way."
More than 300 people attended the Hands on Art gallery's opening night in October and Harper explains the main goal for the studio is to create a safe environment for visually impaired artists to express themselves.
The name came to Harper when she was considering how she critiqued her own work.
"It made me aware that my hands are more important to me than my eyes are, and in a sense my hands are like my eyes. It kind of goes hand in hand with the name Hands on Art."
Harper, who is now happily remarried, says despite all the hardships she has endured she wouldn't change a thing because it has made her who she is today.
"I'd love to see a bird flying or the colour of my children's eyes. But who am I to complain. I've got the use of my hands, and both of my legs, and brain.
"It's our outlook on life. I could sit at home and go 'Poor me', or I can get off my butt and try to make things better for other people so they don't have to go through what I went through."
PAULINE HARPER Aged 50.
Mother of four.
Born with only 3 per cent eyesight.
Sees in black and white.
Graduated with Bachelor of Visual Arts from Witt in 2009.
Believed to be the first blind person to graduate with a visual arts degree, according to Canadian research.
Owns Harper Designs.
Is creating Santaland in Centre City.
Opened Hands On Art in the Metro Plaza in October.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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