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Visually impaired man takes up oil painting at age 84
Bill Eary holds a painting recently completed by Richard Bagley, left, who is still very new to painting.

Richard Bagley is legally blind, but that hasn’t stopped him from learning to paint at age 84.

Bagley, a resident at The Gardens of Gainesville, learned about an oil painting class being offered by the active adult community from another resident. After hearing what the class entailed, he tried to leave. But instructor Bill Eary stopped him, noting Bagley seemed kind of depressed when they first met.

“But he’s a gutsy old man,” Eary said.

Bagley was convinced to stay and try. He was glad he did.

“I needed something to challenge me and this did,” Bagley said. “The more I got into it, the more excited I became.”

To help him paint, Bagley and Eary blocked off the canvas, drawing a grid from which to work with a pencil. From there, Bagley worked on small squares of the picture at a time, a method that makes painting less overwhelming, Eary said.

“I would help him mix colors,” Eary said. “Outside of that, I left him alone.”

They started painting the sky, with Eary suggesting color changes to Bagley. Next, he painted the foreground, bringing it up from the bottom. The building was the last part painted.

“My amazement was he had the guts to sit down and do it,” Eary said.

Bagley used an enlarged photograph from which to paint.

“With him we were trying to drag out the memory,” he said. “Memory makes your hands do what your eyes can’t see sometimes.”

It took two months to complete the painting during class, which met each weekday. The time between classes allowed the paint to dry on the canvas so new layers could be added.

“It turned out to really be more successful than I thought it was going to be,” Bagley said

That surprised Bagley, who suffers from the wet form of macular degeneration, the most severe. Because of it, Bagley can’t read documents or use a computer without special software. He can’t see things straight ahead of him. He can only see things in his peripheral vision, and even then, it’s hard to tell colors and details.

“I could say I see enough to get myself in trouble sometimes,” he said.

Macular degeneration is an age-related eye disease with no cure. Bagley explained it as abnormal blood vessels forming behind the retina, which cause scar tissue to form. It takes away central vision such as depth perception, reading and identifying colors, everything needed to exist in the real world, he said.

In unfamiliar places, Bagley uses a cane to navigate. In familiar places, such as The Gardens of Gainesville, he walks freely.

However, eating proves a constant challenge as he can’t see a fork or spoon in front of him.

“It’s something that people really give up with and don’t want to try anything,” he said of the disease. “I continue to play golf a little bit when people will take me out, so it’s a matter of this being a challenge for me.”

Painting was a challenge, but one he overcame to produce a beautiful painting he plans to share with his family. Painting darker areas is a particular challenge, since he can’t see them well.

But painting has helped him cope with the loss of his wife Edwena. They moved to The Gardens of Gainesville in May and she died in June after 62 years of marriage, leading him to depression.

“(Painting) is another way of keeping your brain going and life goes on and ... it’s something that gives you strength and that’s what you need to keep going,” he said.

Bagley said he thinks his wife would be excited about his new hobby. He is father of three daughters with five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and looks forward to starting another painting in class in new year. This one will be a scene of an abbey in Ireland from a vacation picture he took years ago.

“We’ll probably take most of the winter until we’re through,” Eary said. “His skills will get better.”

“If you can make them remember neat things about their lives, they’re able to perform much better. They remember, his hands still remember what to do. It’s his eyes that aren’t good.”

Bagley and Eary are hoping to come up with a way for Bagley to start mixing some of his own colors.

“It’s challenging,” Bagley said. “It gives me something to do and that I think is going to help keep me around for a few more years.”