For years now, I’ve been collecting stories about artists whose physical differences or disabilities have led to their signature work. Examples:
- Chuck Close, along with his paralysis, “suffers from Prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, in which he is unable to recognize faces.” And yet, he’s most famous for his face paintings, which help him remember faces.
- Tommy Iommi, guitar player for Black Sabbath, after he lost fingertips in an industrial accident, was inspired by Django, and formed homemade prosthetics, and detuned his guitars down to C#, so there was less tension on the strings. This detuning is part of what makes Sabbath’s guitars sound so heavy, and thus we have heavy metal…
- Henri Matisse’s failing eyesight and health led him to make his “cut-out” paper collages
- The guitarist Django Reinhardt lost the use of 2 of his fretting fingers, and played all of his solos with two fingers
- Regina Spektor has very small hands, and while studying classical piano, “scores had to be rearranged, her left hand taking on part of the role of the left.” After a while, it became clear that “the life she expected was perhaps not so attainable.” So she quit classical piano, but sat at the piano and wrote songs instead. (“The gift of small hands” as a NYTimes profile called it)
- Art Spiegelman has amblyopia, or “lazy eye,” which flattens depth perception. He says he suspects it’s one of the reasons he’s a cartoonist—because the world looks flat to him
- Walter Tandy Murch (father of film editor Walter Murch) a magical realist painter, was almost blind in one eye from a teenage accident, his vision as if “seen through translucent plastic”
This list is, of course, terribly incomplete, and man-heavy. (Please email me or tweet at me if you can think of other examples.) I’ve also done a poor job of including other creative types, like inventors, scientists, etc.
(There are all sorts of stories of inventors and artists with impairments related to their work. Beethoven’s deafness is the classic example, and while reading Damon Krukowski’s The New Analog last night, I found out that two of the men who developed the telephone had connections to the hearing-impaired: Alexander Graham Bell’s mother was deaf, he taught in a deaf school, and married one of his deaf students, and Thomas Edison was deaf in one ear, almost deaf in the other.)
One of my favorite contemporary examples is Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, who has been sick with chronic fatigue syndrome since 1987. For almost 25 years, she’s been confined indoors with crippling vertigo. She can’t go out and do research, she can’t attend literary festivals or book signings, or do any of the “normal” stuff that most authors do.
In a NYTimes profile, Wil S. Hylton writes:
It may be tempting to think of Hillenbrand as someone who has triumphed in spite of her illness. The truth is at once more complicated and more interesting. Many of the qualities that make Hillenbrand’s writing distinctive are a direct consequence of her physical limitations. Every writer works differently, but Hillenbrand works more differently than any writer I know of. She has been forced by the illness to develop convoluted workarounds for some of the most basic research tasks, yet her workarounds, in all their strange complexity, deliver many of her greatest advantages.
For example, she can’t go to the library and read old newspaper microfiche, instead she orders old vintage newspapers off eBay and reads them in her living room:
Hillenbrand told me that when the newspaper arrived, she found herself engrossed in the trivia of the period — the classified ads, the gossip page, the size and tone of headlines. Because she was not hunched over a microfilm viewer in the shimmering fluorescent basement of a research library, she was free to let her eye linger on obscure details…
…It was in those vintage newspapers that Hillenbrand discovered her next book. “I happened to turn over a clipping about Seabiscuit,” she said. “On the other side of that page, directly the opposite side of the page, was an article on Louie Zamperini, this running phenom.”
Since she can’t travel, she can’t do interviews her subjects face-to-face, so she relies on phone interviews:
This would seem to almost any reporter a terrible handicap. One hallmark of literary nonfiction is its emphasis on personal observation. But Hillenbrand found that telephone interviews do offer certain advantages… “I thought it was actually an advantage to be unable to go to Louie,” she said. Because neither of them had to dress for the interviews and they were in their own homes, their long phone calls enjoyed a warmth and comfort that might otherwise be missing. She could pose the deeply personal questions that even her father had trouble answering.
Finally, because of her vertigo, she often finds herself unable to read, and so she has to listen to a ton of audiobooks:
Hillenbrand sometimes longs for the tactile pleasure of the printed page, but she believes her immersion in audiobooks has actually improved her writing. “It has taught me a lot more about the importance of the rhythm of language,” she said. “Good writing has a musical quality to it, a mathematical quality, a balance and a rhythm. You can feel that much better when it’s read aloud.”
Saul Steinberg said, “what we respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her limitations.” I am not sure where I am going by collecting all of these examples, and I certainly do not mean to romanticize these artists or their conditions, merely point out that by (creatively) dealing with them, the artist came up with something new, or great.
What lesson or takeaway there is for the rest of us, if one exists, I’m not sure of yet, other than confirmation of the title of Ryan Holiday’s book: the obstacle is the way…
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- (9/18/2019) After a tonsillectomy, Ernest Tubb couldn’t yodel like his hero Jimmie Rodgers anymore. So he started writing his own songs.
- (7/21/2020) Film director Martin Scorsese couldn’t play sports or run too much with the other kids, so his parents took him to the movies. (He developed a habit of observing people from a distance…)
- (3/29/2021) Pianist Leon Fleisher lost the use of his right hand, and turned to playing left-handed pieces and teaching, eventually regaining his use of both hands again
- (3/29/2021) Composer Molly Joyce, who lost use of her left hand in a car accident and found a toy organ with chords on the left, keyboard on the right, which became a signature sound