Up Against Oblivion

Sargy Mann, blind painter

Here’s a story I have never encountered before. Sargy Mann spends 25 years as a painter and ends up losing his sight. But he decides to keep painting.

From an article about Mann by Tim Adams in the Guardian:

“After a bit I thought: ‘Well here goes,’ and loaded a brush with ultramarine,” he recalls. “What followed was one of the strangest sensations of my life: I ‘saw’ the canvas turn blue as I put the paint down. Next I put my Schminke magenta, and ‘saw’ it turn rose. The colour sensation didn’t last, it was only there while I was putting the paint down, but it went on happening with different colours…”

He didn’t look back. “Once I had started painting blind, there was no stopping me. It just became the new way of doing it. It was difficult, but art had always been difficult, and having a new set of difficulties was no bad thing.” It was, he thought, a bit like a deaf composer hearing orchestra parts in his head.

Adams’ piece includes some of the research being done by Semir Zeki, a pioneer in “neuroaesthetics” (a word he created) and an authority on how minds, in particular artists’ minds, understand the world. Zeki believes that all great artists are instinctive neruoscientists: “They have an innate understanding of how the brain “sees” the world, and they are fated by this knowledge to constantly try to find a correspondent visual language.” As Zeki points out, seeing is not a passive process.

When we look at a painting, as his sensitive MRI scanning proves, different bits of information are immediately separated and sent to discrete anatomical corners of our brains for processing. Our brains respond to this compartmentalised information at slightly different rates; colour is processed before form, for example, and form before motion. Having been taken apart, as it were, a painting that we love is never simply put back together again in our heads; rather it “exists” dynamically in the interplay between responses of different parts of the brain. That combination of responses can create a puzzling, powerful and lasting engagement with the image, an emotional response.

Mann also shares a quote originally made about poetry, by Philip Larkin, that describes his view of painting: “Painting is a visual device for preserving an experience from oblivion. For me that means making the world look more like itself. Now that is obviously nonsense, because I can no longer see. But I don’t really feel that I have had to abandon any of these thoughts.”

A great thought, and a courageous human being.

3 Replies to “Up Against Oblivion”

  1. Wonderful highlighted article.

    I’m reading Oliver Sacks’ new book, which also offers some fascinating information on how the brain works, or not.

  2. M, Heard Sacks talking about this new book on Fresh Air but haven’t read it yet. He’s always so readable. I’ll take a look.

  3. What a wonderful story. I’m reading O. Sack’s book currently as well. And I just saw a documentary on HBO about 3 blind photographers…
    So much to think about…

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