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A Matter of Perception

Dominique Moody has lost most of her sight. Yet she brings a clear vision to her art--and to life in a racially diverse society.

March 25, 1997|ADRIENNE M. JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Color has always mattered in Dominique Moody's life.

As a child, she despaired for her mother after seeing old black-and-white photos. How sad, she thought, that her mother had lived in a world before greens and blues and reds were invented. Even after her mother stopped laughing and explained it was the technology, not the color, that was missing, Moody longed to take her crayons and brighten the snapshots.

Then, too, born in a monochromatic Germany 40 years ago, she withstood the rubs and pats on her head from aged passersby looking for the luck or the horns they thought a dark child possessed.

And later, when she became an artist, color became her tool of expression, adding emotion and depth to the images she brushed on walls.

But sometimes loss is the greatest teacher. Even the things we value gain greater meaning when they are taken away.

Moody learned this 12 years ago when she suddenly went blind.

*

Color is the kindling of racism. It is often skin tone that sets off our misperceptions and assumptions. Knowing that, we strive to ignore our most obvious differences. We struggle toward a colorblind society, believing that not seeing is a solution. But Dominique Moody will tell you that blindness is not necessarily seeing nothing. It is not always an absence of color. Sometimes, blindness is seeing just enough to see things differently.

When she was 28, Moody had 20-20 vision, but she comes from a family in which most of her siblings and both parents wear glasses. So when a change occurred, she thought it was just her turn.

"I was reading a very good book and almost midway . . . I could no longer understand what was written on the page," she says. "It was that sudden, that quick."

She went to an eye doctor, but the treatments couldn't make her eyes correct themselves. Intuitively, she knew she needed a specialist. After three months of dye injections, dilations and strobes, the researchers told Moody it was a latent genetic birth defect that was progressive and inoperable.

Now with pupils like a camera with its shutter stuck open, she sees silhouettes outlined by ghostly shadows. Details--noses, mouths, eyes--are lost to her. Colors have no sharp edge, appearing diffuse.

Before the blindness, she was a custom framer and painter of interior murals, a military brat with roots abroad, leading a peripatetic life that had landed her in San Francisco. Now that work would take too long and be too difficult. At 29, she had to find new ways to live and create.

Part of the process was trying to commune with other visually impaired artists in the Bay Area. She met some, and "we talked a lot about the fact that just how black artists have a very hard time getting into that larger arena of the arts, that visually impaired artists were like this separate group that was being segregated outside of that larger arc." They decided to try to pool their resources and have their own shows.

Once they found a space for a show, all they needed was commitment. So they gathered at the home of a woman Moody had not yet met. Moody realized she was the only African American artist present, but that happened often. In fact, she mentioned her race to the others, believing that since the artists had joined forces to overcome their exclusion, they would see the benefits of encouraging diversity in their group.

The participants took turns introducing themselves and revealing the talents they had that could aid in organizing. When it was Moody's turn, she told of her experience putting together shows and her knowledge of framing and displaying art. The group members were encouraging, as they had been to others, pleased that she could offer skills no one else had. But as she spoke, one voice interrupted.

Moody couldn't tell who was talking at first. It turned out to be the woman in whose house they were meeting. "It was, basically, like a rant," Moody says. "I couldn't understand at first what was being said."

Everyone got silent. The woman kept talking:

I hate this, I just can't stand people like you! Those people! You're all the same. You all just . . . you want everything! You feel everyone should give you everything. . . . You're just like them out there, out there on the street. You black people!

No one said anything, not even Moody.

"Because this was her home, I did not feel that I could verbally fight back. The position was, I am a guest in her home; her friends brought me here, they are the ones who need to say and make any corrections in her house. And no one did."

After about 10 minutes, Moody left. Six weeks later, she heard from the man who had pulled her into the group. "He said he had never been in a situation like that, that blatantly racist. He had never been in a position where he would have to act, and when he was, he didn't know what to do."

The man said the others had talked about what happened in small groups initially, and then let it pass. They were waiting for Moody to come back, to pretend it had never happened.

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