Artist's visionary works defy blindness
By Eric Heyl
Published: Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, 9:36 p.m.
It's difficult not to marvel over the special Christmas presents Maxine Niehoff will give today to her three adult children.
The watercolor scenes are the product of Niehoff's growing passion for a pastime the senior citizen took up barely six months ago. What makes them remarkable is not their high quality despite her relative inexperience at painting.
What makes them remarkable is the fact that she has been legally blind for the past five years.
Niehoff, 78, suffers from macular degeneration, the leading cause of central vision loss among older people. The affliction affects the macula, the part of the eye that allows people to see fine detail.
Yet fine details and subtle shadings are evident in her pictures of sailboats on the water, rustic rural settings and flowers in full bloom in fields.
How does she do it? Her offspring are uncertain.
“She must rely on her peripheral vision,” said daughter Janet Laughlin of Monroeville. “My brother teases her that this blindness thing must be an act.”
Niehoff, a resident of the St. Barnabas Retirement Village in Richland, credits her painting skills to her ability to still make out colors.
“If I close my eyes and envision what I want it to look like, then I can put it down on paper,” she said. “I'm anything but perfect, but it's fun to see what you can try to do.”
Niehoff started taking charcoal drawing classes, then watercolor, as a means to stay busy at St. Barnabas. The former dance class instructor determined that the exercise classes she teaches in the retirement community three times a week weren't keeping her active enough.
“There's just a group of four or five of us, and we just spend an hour and a half together and paint and talk some,” Niehoff said. “It's a lot of fun.”
Niehoff has been prolific enough with her painting that she had three wooden shelves installed in her living room to display them. The exhibit is not open to the public, but Niehoff's friends and family were treated to a holiday scene she painted that was reprinted on the Christmas cards they received.
Niehoff is obliging her children's request to receive a painting for Christmas.
“But I haven't told them which ones they're getting,” she said. “I've been keeping that a secret.”
No matter what they receive from their legally blind mother who didn't pick up a paintbrush until the summer, this is one Christmas likely to linger long in the memories of Laughlin and her siblings.
Eric Heyl is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7857 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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