Leelanau artist paints the view through impaired eyes: this week on The Green Room

Jun 16, 2016

Peggy McNew is a painter from Empire, Michigan. There’s nothing unusual about that— there are a lot of painters in Leelanau County. But Peggy is different. She’s legally blind. 

And a question that she’s wrestled with is whether or not that matters in relation to her art.

Down in her basement studio, Peggy shows off a watercolor painting she’s been working on. It’s a landscape with a barn nestled in the middle of it.

When Peggy paints, she leans in so close that sometimes her nose is just a couple of inches from her painting. Peggy has cone dystrophy. It’s a rare eye disorder that affects her retinas. Her vision is murky.

“Central vision is gone, the peripheral on the outsides is gone— by gone I mean it’s cloudy,” she explains.

Having zero central vision would seem to be a problem for a visual artist. But Peggy has figured out a way to see and paint. 

First, she wears a thick pair of +10 glasses. And then she does something unusual— she doesn’t look directly at what she’s painting.

Peggy McNew poses in her basement studio in Empire. She wears a pair of 10 glasses to help her see when she's painting.
Credit Dan Wanschura

“To really see the detail … I look above where I’m trying to see to use my lower peripheral to see it," explains Peggy. "It’s pretty cool that the brain can retrain like that.” 

Her paintings look like other watercolor paintings. Not real crisp, maybe a bit impressionistic, and beautiful. Her art has been showcased in a few venues around Traverse City, and she was even a sponsored artist in the Downtown Art Walk this year.

For much of her life Peggy thought her vision was normal, that everyone saw the world the way she did.

She studied music in college and was always amazed at how well others could sight-read music. When she played the piano, she could only read the notes for one hand at a time.

After college, Peggy became an elementary school teacher. She was in her late 30's when she reminded a young boy to write his name on his paper. The student told her he had written his name— it was in yellow. That's when she went to a doctor. The doctor diagnosed her condition as cone dystrophy. Peggy was relieved.

"I was actually in tears," says Peggy. "It was like, ‘Boy does it feel good to have someone understand.’"

“You know, my life is good. And I have a way to get to what I choose to do ... I don’t feel like I’m anything but myself. Which to me is normal."

Peggy McNew is now 66 years old— she retired from teaching six years ago. That’s when she decided to take up watercolor painting.

When Peggy started to paint, she decided to make business cards she could hand out to people. On her first business card she had “Blooming Art” printed next to her name. She says she chose the name because she was painting a lot of flowers, and just learning.

As she continued to paint, Peggy made a second business card. She had V-I-P printed on the front of it, with Visually Impaired Painter in parentheses. She thought it was funny, and even a bit cutsie. 

Since she’s unable to drive, she usually takes a bus into Traverse City for a painting lesson every week.

A lot of different people come and go on and off the bus. Young people, old people. People in wheelchairs and homeless people. Peggy says seeing the struggles these people deal with, make her problems seem lighter.

“You know, my life is good," Peggy says. "I have a way to get to what I choose to do ... I don’t feel like I’m anything but myself, which to me is normal.”

Which is why Peggy began to question focusing on her visual impairment. 

The longer she painted, the more she realized she wanted her paintings to be the emphasis— not her disability. So, she took “VIP” off her business card.

A photo of one of Peggy McNew's watercolor paintings. She says she often paints barns and flowers.
Credit Peggy McNew

She says she doesn't want people to come see her art because she's visually impaired.

"I’d rather have people look at my art and say, ‘I like the art. Oh, by the way, you’re visually impaired, well that’s pretty cool that you can do that,'" Peggy says.

That’s why Peggy had mixed feelings about talking in the first place. 

And that’s also why her third, and current business card, has "M'Eye View" printed next to her name.

“As in My View," she says. "And it’s what my eyes see— the view through my eyes."