Sunday, May 16, 1999

Beginning to see the light

Artist battles blurred vision

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LAKESIDE PARK — For months, Ken Page stayed away from his brushes. He was afraid. What if he couldn't do it anymore?

        Not so long ago, he would play rock or reggae music and paint quickly to the beat — tiny strokes of purple or pink that became his signature cows and landscapes.

        Hours would go by. He loved to paint. It was like oxygen to him.

        Ken Page took his vision for granted then.

        Not anymore. He can't trust his eyes now. Can't even be sure how far it is to the other side of the room.

        Hence the fear. What if he tries and fails? He alternates between confidence in his ability to adapt and worry over the future of his sight.

        Mr. Page's ordeal began last summer. Three days into vacation, he was tying his shoes on a golf course, looked up and saw tiny crystals everywhere. The retina in his right eye had torn, and his left was detached.

        There were operations, setbacks, pain and more operations. Now one eye is severely impaired. If he closes his good one, he can see shapes, colors and shadows, but they are twisted, like a Salvador Dali painting.

        As luck would have it, Dali was never one of Mr. Page's influences.

        This summer, doctors will attempt to permanently repair his right eye, but there is a 30 percent chance they will not succeed.

        The threat comes as his reputation flourishes.

        At 51, Mr. Page has found his style and rhythm as a painter. He does purplish and pinkish and orange cows, fields bathed in strange colors, farmers and jockeys and horse owners with their backs turned. Nobody paints a more interesting back than Ken Page.

        Four galleries in the area sell his originals. He illustrated his first children's book, Shoes like Miss Alice's, in 1995, and he just sold four pieces of art to the new Marriott hotel in Covington.

        He also teaches at Dayton High School. He's back there now, and he can even drive again, provided he makes mostly right turns and doesn't attempt to pass anyone.

        But the most important thing, his painting, has come more slowly.

        Empty canvases have loomed in his mind. For a long time, he wasn't strong enough to approach them. He didn't want to get angry. He had spent all summer, fall and winter trying to conquer that.

        The doctors can't say why his eyes failed him. Near-sighted people can be prone to detached retinas. Sometimes the problem is inherited or linked to diabetes, but Mr. Page does not have that disease.

        His damaged right eye had been the stronger before.

        “I'm living with the weak (left) eye, hoping it stays,” he said. “That's the scary part.”

        His depth perception has changed. Objects appear closer or farther away than they really are.

        His brush strokes had been so precise before — like many, tiny feathers blending to form a slightly impressionistic image, undulating with unusual color.

        A few weeks ago, he tried again for the first time, on an afternoon when no one else was home.

        He had to feel the canvas with his hand, guide the brush toward it. He added color to a few unfinished paintings.

        Then he put it all away. He wasn't ready for his wife or children to know what he was doing.

        He realizes people with impaired vision learn to adapt. He's confident he can do this. But he also asks, “Why do I have to adapt, darnit?”

        There's the question. Why.

        Mr. Page is beginning to laugh about small things. He noticed, for instance, that his neck was aching, and he realized he has been cocking his head slightly, to give his good eye a better view.

        He also chuckles about his obsession with painting. He loves exploring the way light hits a subject. He loves putting a concept to canvas and watching it take off.

        He plays with the colors of water and air. Nothing is photographically correct. That's the fun of it.

        “I can make the sky any color I want,” Mr. Page said. “I can put green in the sky and make you like it.”

        He is speaking in the present tense. Must be a sign of spring.

Karen Samples is The Enquirer's Kentucky columnist. Her column appears on Sundays and Thursdays in The Kentucky Enquirer. E-mail her at