Local artist regains vision

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series about a local artist and his struggle to repair his vision and to pursue his highest artistic ambitions. You can also read the first part of the series.

On the day of his 64th birthday, Bob Chapman bounded into his art studio like an excited child, giddy for his presents. From his newly repaired right eye, he gazed on one of his masterpieces, “The Doll Prince.”

The colors invaded his mind like a redeeming army, colors that he had never seen a day in his life. Swirling and churning, the yellows and blues popped neon-bright into the back of his skull; greens and oranges flashing where once they had been dull; blacks and whites stark where they had been muddy only a day before.

“I could see clear across the room and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can see again.’”

It was Jan. 30, and Chapman had just returned from the first of two surgeries to repair the rapidly degenerating cataracts that had sent his life into a two-month-long tailspin of desperation. To pay the cost of the procedure before his sight was lost for good, he painted commercial landscapes at a feverish pace. It wasn’t enough.

He then put treasures like “The Doll Prince” on the market — his children, his personal collection — leaving the walls of his home bare of artwork he never wanted to be parted from. It still wasn’t enough.

His friends came to his aid and bought nearly all his unique works even amidst their own financial troubles. They held an art auction in his benefit. Just like Chapman, many of them had no health insurance, doing unto Chapman as they hoped other artists would do unto them when their time came.

It was enough. Chapman was able to pay the roughly $14,000 for both surgeries.

Driving back from that first operation on Jan. 30, chauffeured by his dearest friend Beth Darling, he could only repeat “This is insane!” as he stared out the window. Beth Darling, with her jaded artist’s eyes, said she could see only a “drab winter Illinois landscape.”

Chapman saw only colors, only beauty.

As he contemplated “The Doll Prince” in his studio, Chapman felt like he was seeing it for the first time, and he was impressed. He was proud. Whoever painted this knew what he was doing. “Damn, I’m good,” he had said. Two days later, he shipped the painting to a woman in Boston.

Darling suggested Chapman get out of his studio to see his backyard clearly for the first time in years. He raised his eyes to the tree branches that usually registered as muddy clumps. Now they stood black against the sky, distinct.

“I could see each arm of each little branch,” Chapman said. “It didn’t make me want to draw. It made me want to look.”

Between surgeries, while wearing a pair of glasses with the right lens popped out, he would sometimes blink his eyes back and forth as he looked at his artwork.

Left, blind. Right, sight. Blind. Sight. Blind. Sight.

“It’s like going from a hand-painted sign on cardboard with poster paints to a neon light in a window,” Chapman said. “The difference is so intense.”

A week later, after his left eye was repaired, the revelations didn’t cease. He could see the dust bunnies on every surface of his home, the toothpaste splattered against his bathroom mirror, the crinkled smile lines at the corner of Darling’s eyes. A pair of blue underwear revealed itself, to his chagrin, as lavender.

Stepping out the shower, he can now clearly see his naked body for the first time in months, perhaps years. The subtle layers of flesh tones are a constant surprise. From the bathroom mirror, a strange and new face stares back, stubbly and wrinkled.

It’s surreal for Chapman: He thinks of the countless landscapes he painted and shipped with eyes that were barely functioning. There are moments when he wants to pick up the phone, call every buyer from the past few months, and demand they send everything back.

With both surgeries completed and his vision restored, Chapman now wonders if his new sight may be a little too perfect. He laughed as he mused about whether he could still claim to possess human sight.

“I may actually be seeing colors that no human has ever seen before. I’m becoming a bit of an android artist,” he said, Darling laughing along with him.

Nearly every day since the Feb. 6 operation on his left eye, Darling has taken time to be with Chapman. She has been helping him operate the cumbersome printing press in a corner of his cluttered garage. They crank out thank-you notes set in a jumbled, playful type.

As they work, they talk and quip at each other. They laugh together, uncontrived, their faces blushed and bright.

At 64, Chapman is by no means a young man. Still, he’s looking for his next project, the next great beauty to chase, capture and love.

“You put things out there and they pull you forwards,” he said.

But still pulling him backward are the aftershocks of the previous two months. The cataracts. The fear of blindness. The vulnerability, even shame, of accepting help.

“It was something that could have been horrible and tragic and sad, and instead it turned into this wonderful thing that happened to me,” Chapman said. “That’s miraculous and wonderful.”