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Gainesville artist puts life on canvas, despite worsening blindness

POSTED: January 3, 2012 1:30 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Linda Dragonette talks about one of her works in progress.

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The average person may look at the sky and see a solid field of blue. But for an artist, it’s a blanket of interwoven shades of aquamarine and cerulean.

In general, artists have a unique way of viewing the world. Linda Dragonette upholds that theory.

Whereas some people are busy looking at the broader picture, Dragonette’s perspective is more focused. Her unique view is a blend of both creative choice and genetic predispositions.

The Gainesville resident suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative hereditary disease that she says gets worse with age.

"If you have a (computer) screen that’s 3,200 pixels, I’m down to about 300. When I stand back, I can piece things together, but it’s hard for me to understand what I’m looking at anymore," she said.

"I see things very tiny. It was like looking through a cocktail straw before, but now it’s a bit tinier than that."

Dragonette inherited the eye disease from her father. Her sister, nephew and son also have it.

"With retinitis you lose your peripheral vision first. It starts when you’re a child. I had always thought, well that’s OK, as long as I have my central vision," Dragonette said.

"It’s like you have Vaseline over your eyes. Right now, I’m in the last stages. I can’t see out of my left eye.

"And my colors have grayed. That’s the hardest thing for an artist to deal with."

Coping with her increasingly impaired vision may be difficult, but it hasn’t impeded her work. Instead of giving up on the thing she loves, Dragonette has adjusted her artistic style over the last 20 years.

Originally, she would do stippling portraits, which are created my using a series of dots to create a pattern.

"I did those with ink and quills. As my vision worsened, it became too hard. It would take 80 hours to finish one," Dragonette said.

"Then I started doing the oil paintings. Then I went to pastels."

Since pastels are pure pigment and are applied by dabbing the chalk-like forms against the canvas, Dragonette says it became easier to use because the color was at her fingertips instead of the end of a paintbrush.

Over the years, as her vision has diminished, Dragonette has transitioned from literal interpretations to looser, representational work.

"In the last six months, I’ve gotten to the point where I have to accept that I can’t do the detail work anymore because I don’t know what everyone else is seeing," Dragonette said.

"I thought doing abstracts would be easier, but it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done. You have to do a lot of technical things to make an abstract painting work.

"I would start doing an abstract, but then I couldn’t help but make it look like (a concrete object). Now I know that what I’ve been doing is called abstract expressionism. It’s abstract, but you can actually have subject matter in it."

Although a painter, Dragonette’s works are all born from images she captures on her camera.

"For every painting I do, I take pictures first. I’ve been doing that for 25 or 30 years," Dragonette said.

"I take pictures all around the subject matter and get as close as I can. I take the pictures I like and have them enlarged. My camera captures the details that I can’t see with my bare eyes."

Her photography methods have also changed over the years.

"Back when I started taking the pictures for my paintings, I’d have this big bag with my camera and all, different types of lenses. It probably weighed over 50 pounds," Dragonette said.

"Back then it was rolls of film. For every painting I made, I probably took three rolls of film.

"Now, I get the biggest kick out of my little, tiny Canon camera that can hold thousands of pictures."

Despite her diminishing eyesight, Dragonette’s success as an artist has remained a constant. At one point, her work was displayed in more than a dozen art galleries at one time. She’s a signature member of the Southeastern Pastel Society and has been the recipient of the Pastel Society of North Florida’s Windsor Newton Award.

Dragonette is currently working toward becoming a master member of The Pastel Society of the West Coast. Earlier this year, the organization selected two of her paintings for inclusion in its 25th annual International Open Exhibition.

"These people with the West Coast society are the best in the world," Dragonette said.

"They’re the ones writing the books, so it really was an honor to be included in their show."

Not only was she selected to participate, Dragonette’s "Mexican Sunflower" painting was used on banners to advertise the exhibition at the Haggin Museum in California.

Although that show is over, her "Moments of Color" exhibition is currently on display at the Quinlan Visual Arts Center, 514 Green St. in Gainesville.

The exhibition, on display until Feb. 19, may not have come to fruition if it wasn’t for Dragonette’s doctors at the North Georgia Eye Clinic.

Dragonette has another medical condition that causes the rapid growth of cataracts on her eyes. In the last 17 years, she has had six cataract removal surgeries. Her doctors performed the most recent surgery in June so she could complete the artwork for her Quinlan exhibition.

When her sight became too weak to see the canvas bare-eyed, her husband found a special headpiece with multiple magnifying lenses to help her see clearer.

When her trusted brushes moved her paints too far away, Dragonette transitioned to holding pastels in her fingertips and oil paints on palette knives.

"It’s getting more difficult, but you don’t have to stop. I’m having fun with it. I exaggerate color. I do looser figurative paintings and make my subjects more abstract," Dragonette said.

"You adjust. ... You don’t give up."



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