The funny thing? I earn my livelihood as a professional portrait artist, which my dad calls the king of art genres due to the difficulty of truly capturing a person. And people wonder if God has a sense of humor? A guy with less than 10% of normal vision earning his living doing something as precise and challenging as painting portraits. Crazy.
I am Tim Chambers, professional artist and founder of Iguana Art Academy. I’ve been painting professionally for almost 30 years, and have been around art my whole life, for my dad, William Chambers, is also a professional artist (williamchambers.com). I probably made my career choice by the time I was three. I love art. I can’t imagine being anything else. It’s how I process thoughts, take in everything in life. I think visually. I see moments as paintings.
Moments, even challenging ones, are a canvas, an opportunity to pick up your brush and make something beautiful out of nothing, or even better, out of a mess.
People have asked me how I can paint when I see so little. Actually, I see much more than most people see. I lack peripheral vision, true, but I can see what I am looking at, and for an artist, that’s just one part of the equation. Seeing also involves the heart and mind, and then comes the execution of applying that vision to canvas. I believe it’s the artist who can see the beauty in the commonplace. “Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision; it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so,” taught American painter Charles Hawthorne. I agree.
As the years go by, and the miracle of painting with diminishing vision grows, so does the curiosity factor. People want to know my story, and how I can still paint like I can in spite of having such little vision. Here’s my story.
My Mentor, My Dad, and Early Training
Growing up, I always knew I was going to be an artist, though I could never have guessed the journey that awaited me. Even the best-laid plans of mice and men go awry, said poet Robert Burns. Still, when my dad saw my resolve to be a painter, he gave me his blessing to pursue the best training. After all, he knew that I needed to be able to compete with him if I was going to succeed, and there was much to learn.
College was an adventure, again unexpected. Dad had set a high standard. I earned a few scholarships, selected a big university of 30,000 students. Abstract, psychological-based art was the norm. Even the best colleges were about conveying feeling, sans skill. I was taught that the only absolute was that there were no absolutes (funny!), and certainly no clear definitions of what constituted beauty. In other words, I wasn’t getting the training I needed to be a skilled painter. Imagine a musician graduating college unable to play anything but dissonance. Skill is necessary to success. I was frustrated, not learning what I needed.
Always one to find a solution, my dad discovered a school down in Nashville, Tennessee, that taught traditional tools of illustration- anatomy, composition, lettering, and more. I would be transferring from a school of 30,000 students to one of 90. Yes, ninety. The Harris School of Art in Franklin, TN had less than 1 percent the students from my college. Did someone say small? Suddenly I knew everyone on campus!
I was enjoying my first semester at Harris, learning southern-speak (“Coke” referred to all soft drinks, not just one, one-syllable words became two..”Aah’m a pitch a fit about gittin a flat taar, ah-gain, y’all.“) when my dad called and said he found a school I might be interested in up in balmy Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was Richard Lack’s atelier (French for studio), and he accepted a maximum of twelve apprentices. 30,000 > 90 > 12. Smaller…a clue of things to come. I said a sad goodbye to my friends at Harris and trekked up to Minneapolis after Christmas.
Studying at Atelier Lack was a great experience, as I learned centuries-old practices of drawing and painting and I enjoyed the privilege of studying under Mr. Lack, an amazing painter with a wry wit. Stephen Gjertson was my other instructor there. Both were patient, kind, serious teachers, generous and enthusiastic to instruct us younger painters. I learned the art of patient and astute observation at Atelier Lack. I also made some good friends, including one with an equally absurd sense of humor, and a best friend decades later, Carl Samson. Carl is an outright incredible artist. I think between Carl and me, we transformed Atelier Lack from a deathly serious school to one alive with humor and vitality.
While studying at Lack’s, my dad found out about an American master teaching in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The Cape School of Art was started a hundred years earlier by American master Charles Hawthorne, a student of another master, William Merritt Chase. Artists who studied here include Emile Gruppe, Norman Rockwell, Max Bohm and Richard Miller. The current teacher carrying on the tradition was 84-year-old American Impressionist Henry Hensche, a student of Hawthorne. My best friend Kevin and I drove out to the Cape in my ’74 Firebird (a beauty with a great stereo…). Studying at Ptown would change how I see the world and strike a chord in my heart that resonates stronger than ever today, thirty years later.
Epiphany in the Shape of a Block
Prior to meeting Henry Hensche, my focus had been on accurate drawing. I had honed my drawing skills, developing my sense of values (shading) and draftsmanship, trusting my dad’s counsel (“Color will come; first excel at drawing, Tim.”). In fact, I was so focused on that goal that I had not given any attention to studying any of the great painters of the past. In one quite humorous exchange, Henry Hensche revealed my dearth of knowledge and opened up a golden opportunity. Here’s the gist of that conversation:
SCENE: Kevin and I painting in what was called the “Sand Pit” behind the Cape School studios, a small yard consisting of tall gray wood tables, weathered by decades of salt, cold winter winds and hot summer sun. We were painting colored blocks- the standard training tool of the Cape School. I was struggling with capturing the colors of a yellow block. When I mixed black and yellow to paint the shady side of the block, my yellow turned green. Ugh. I was clueless. Along comes Henry to check in on how I am doing.
TIM: Hi, Mr. Hensche. I’m Tim, and this is Kevin. We’re from Chicago.
HENRY: How long have you been painting?
TIM: About an hour, maybe.
HENRY: No, I meant forever. How long have you been painting in your life? Beginners?
TIM: Not much. Pretty much our first serious painting, really. Yes, beginners.
HENRY: Have you seen Monet?
TIM: Who? (I didn’t know any better, but I should have been embarrassed, being at a school studying Impressionism and I didn’t even know who the founder of Impressionism was…).
HENRY: Monet. Claude Monet. Never mind. You having trouble with that yellow block, eh? Let me have your palette and brush. You can get rid of that tube of burnt umber, and the black, too.
I watched as Henry drew from my piles of violet, blue, red, and white, to paint the most stunning, beautiful, true yellow block I’ve ever seen. He barely even used any yellow. I was stunned. I was hooked. As Henry handed me my palette, he said “This weekend, you two go to the Gardner in Boston and look at the Monets. M-O-N-E-T. Monet.”
Kevin and I took the ferry to Boston to visit the Gardner Museum and see the Monets. At first glance, up close, I wasn’t impressed. I moved
on to other paintings. Kevin stayed at the first painting, one of Monet’s Haystack paintings. From across the room I looked back for Kevin, and suddenly, I was stunned. Again. Two stunning moments in a week. The Monet was the most amazing painting I had ever seen. The colors were life-like, full of sun, full of air, full of… truth. My life would never be the same. Kevin saw it before me, up close. It took me stepping away to see how everything pulled together.
We went back to the Cape School with a new awareness and humility, convinced we were in the most most perfect place in the world. Once, during a talk and demonstration, Henry challenged the students to “be like those two innocent boys (Kevin and me) from Chicago. They don’t know anything!” (We were initially very insulted, but we learned Henry was actually encouraging students to lay aside their preconceived notions and see with fresh eyes). Henry would open our eyes that week to see what we had missed all along. To see what most people don’t see. Color. Real color. And he would begin to teach us how to respond to what we were observing. Everything was new. Even ordinary things were now amazing.
It was there that I met the person who would become my most influential teacher outside of my dad: Cedric Egeli. Cedric invited me to come down to Annapolis to study with him. After one more semester up in Minneapolis, I did. Cedric, already one of the best portrait artists in America, was studying color with Henry. Cedric was like my dad, always humble, searching for a way to improve. Between those two men, I have learned to be satisfied only in seeking, observing, examining, growing. Cedric and his wife Joanette, also an amazing painter who captures the heart like few can, invited me into their home to study painting and color. 25,000 > 90 > 12 > 1. Little did I see the Gideon-like reduction in numbers, the narrowing of my path.
I studied with the Egelis and Henry Hensche for a while after that, even after I entered into the professional portrait painting field. Again, while I was chomping at the bit to turn professional, my teachers advised me to learn and study as long as I could. Wise counsel. I thank God and my parents for the privilege to do just that.
While I honed my mind and skills to be an artist, my heart was also demanding growth. There were questions that had nothing to do with shapes and values and line and form. Questions about my identity apart from art, questions that hung like a candle with no candle holder; wax was dripping, and my heart was demanding an answer.
One of my high school buddies, Bob, had a beautiful younger sister. I had always enjoyed flirting with girls, but Kim was off-limits to his buddies, per Bob’s orders. But one time at Bob’s house, I noticed Kim reading. I went to say hi (and yes, flirt). Kim was a sight, but it was her book, a bible, that garnered my attention. Not sure why. I had never read a bible. But curious I was. I convinced her brother to let Kim join us guys as we headed out for midnight milkshakes, and it was there that Kim gave insight to some of the questions that had been brewing. I didn’t get a date, but I did get a book. And some answers.
Fast forward two years. I had been reading that book for a couple years before it all came together for me. My appetite for truth in art carried over to life as well. My parents taught me to embrace knowledge and learning. Logic was kind of a game of wits in our house. I was intrigued by the idea of exploring this whole God thing. (Note- I know religion and God are touchy subjects, and politics, too, and I don’t think you can force or convince anyone to believe anything. But I think you’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for. For me, I was looking for something bigger than me, bigger than people, absolute. If you believe differently than me, I am in no position to judge you. I will however, always be glad to hear your story.).
So, thinking this through, I thought if God was real, if he was true, then I wanted to know him. Funny thing was that an old book that was always near (I grew up going to church) but never opened, the Bible, now seemed to provide answers my heart and mind were seeking. That winter, at Christmas time. I began to look at things from a different point of view. Like the story of the Apostle Peter in John 6:68, I couldn’t find any other way or philosophy that would satisfied the deepest longings in my heart and mind. I now had two purposes: to know God, and to be a painter. I was curious how the two shall meet.
Wedding Bells & Warning Bells
Fast forward again, another six years. After about ten years of studying art, I married the forbidden Kim (with her brother’s blessing!) and we moved to Maryland to begin life as a professional artist. My career took off quickly. I received many commissions, raising my fees rapidly to stem the demand. I won major awards for my work. I was doing well, and I envisioned it wouldn’t be long until I was painting Presidents, my portraits hanging alongside other great paintings in Washington. The future was bright.
I know what you’re thinking. Those are dangerous words. The older and wiser know that life sometimes has a way of tempering our lofty ambitions, of bringing our dreams down to the unforgiving reality of life on earth. So it was with me.
When I was thirty, on the heels of coming in Second Place in an international portrait competition (my friend Carl Samson, whom I had convinced to enter the contest, won First Prize), I went in for my annual routine eye checkup. It started fine, but routine quickly turned to horror when the doctor’s face went from relaxed to concerned. “Something’s not right. You need to see a retinal specialist.” The feeling was dread, it was silence, it was fear, it was unfamiliar, it couldn’t be. Please, no…
Kim and I were referred to a retinal specialist near Washington, D.C. My worst fears were confirmed. I had Usher Syndrome, a degenerative disease in which one steadily loses their hearing and vision. Unfortunately, my specialist lacked any sense of bedside manners. In an effort to provide some background as we considered a plan of action, I brought a portfolio of my award-winning portraits for him to view. He flipped through a few pages then thrust it back into my hands, and with the warmth of a surgical knife, said “Better find another profession.” Ugh. Oh, that hurt. To this day, I cringe when that tape plays in my mind.
Cough Syrup- Bleh, but Good for You
My life suddenly lost its footing. My future? Not so bright. In fact, I was convinced, per Dr. Retinal Specialist, that it was stark, midnight black. I was an artist. I saw the world in living color. In a blink my identity was shaken. Gone.
Or so I thought. Kim- I can’t thank God enough for her- was with me every step. Though I thought my life was over, Kim assured me it wasn’t. A friend and pastor assured me that though I may be surprised, my Maker wasn’t. All but three people said “Oh, God would never take your sight, since he’s gifted you as an artist.” No, anyone knows that you don’t dictate to a sovereign God what he can and cannot do. He even tells Darth Vader, the ocean, and the universe where their limits end. God can and does do whatever he pleases. Kim reminded me that life was more than painting, and that I was more than a painter. I met that with fear. My pastor and friend Larry said that creativity was part of who I was, and nothing could squelch it; it would come out one way or another.
A few people offered reassurance with the oft-quoted verse, “’I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jeremiah 29:11).
That promise is highly quoted in church circles, posted on walls (both real and virtual), even stated like a mantra, trusting that good things are on their way to our doorstep. After the news I had just received, I thought truly I must be the exception to this promise. My future looked headed the opposite direction.
It was the cough syrup syndrome. No commercial will mention the awful taste of the stuff. They only tell you what you want to hear. We humans tend to like that (advertising proves it).
The bitter side of this wonderful promise is Jeremiah 29:10, the verse immediately preceding 29:11. Claiming the promise of verse 11 (“wonderful things await you!”…Dr. Seuss!) without considering the context leads to dismay and wondering why God doesn’t keep his promises. Jeremiah 29:10 says “This is what the Lord says: ‘When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place.’” A few verses earlier we read that it was God who carried the Israelites away from their home via a Babylonian siege. Pack a suitcase and get out. No chance of selling their homes to net some equity, transfer their IRAs, 401Ks, empty their house with a yard sale or Craigslist. No, they lost everything. And seventy years? Starting over with nothing… Sheesh!
And it was upon such circumstances that God yields the promise of hope, a future, safe in the love and protection and provision of their Creator. Not the kind of promise that would sell well, even with today’s savvy marketing. I wondered what was in store. What and who could I count on?
It took me a couple years to learn to deal with the news of my eye/ear disease. My worst fear was that I would lose my sight and hearing completely, and be relegated to a rocking chair in the living room, waiting for someone to come and touch me and say hello. I feared that my life would become nothing, that I would have nothing to offer. I feared that I would be forgotten, dismissed, losing all dignity, a mere inconvenience in the lives of those who could still live fully. It was a deep fear, and it would take time for me to release it and trust that God truly does have plans for a hope and a future for me even if I was exiled from what I thought was good and normal.
The original diagnosis (“Find another profession…” ouch!) played mercilessly in my head, paralyzing me at times. In fact, I didn’t get a full night of sleep for almost two years due to waking up in a cold sweat, fearful of what lay ahead. It was our family physician who told me that the health fears taunting me resided in my imagination. He said “Tim, this is an issue of faith and trust. You’re healthy. Go live.”
It wasn’t until I began to take my physician’s advice and begin to trust that God is greater than everything, including my disease, and all my fears, that I began to move past the fear. Either God is and is, or he does not exist. There is no other option. I recall sharing the original physician’s diagnosis with Dr. Irene Maumenee, then head of Wilmar Eye Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital- one of the leading eye centers in the world. Her response? “Find another profession? No! Tim, you paint until you can’t!” Even now, as I write her charge, I get shivers of joy and thankfulness. Yes, that is how we should live, echoing Jonathan Swift’s wisdom: “May you live all the days of your life.”
Learning to See Anew
I left there with a new lease on life. Instead of living in dread, I began to live with opportunity again. Though fear may be a part of the battle, we need to prevail. Boxer Muhammad Ali once said impossible is an opinion. I add that impossible is an opportunity. You’ll meet naysayers anywhere you turn. You can lay down and die, or you can live.
A good portrait painting is 50% a matter of an understanding, empathetic, insightful heart, 50% observation, and 20% execution. I was never great at math, but I insist this is true. Many people can copy, and many can see, but few understand with their mind and heart. I face fears face-to-face, and overcome them because I simply have to as much as I have to breath. And my heart tells me that God is, and he’s greater, and he promises me that I will like the future if I trust him with the now.
On a lighter note, the declining vision has its humorous side. You’ve got your 200° of peripheral side-to-side vision, and I’ve got my 17°. You’d win at basketball, of course. But I can see what I’m looking at. Yes, my dog runs when she sees me coming, and I get dirty looks from accidentally bumping and poking people or cutting in line unaware, but it can be funny. I’ll give you an example.
My kids and I were shopping for a Christmas present for Kim. We came upon a display of electronic massaging products, which we thought Kim would like due to her chronic stiff neck and shoulder from an auto accident (drugged driver). My youngest daughter immediately tries out the massage chair on my left, and my son, standing next to me on my right, and I look over the various packages for an ideal gift. While I’m reading one box, I’m unaware that my son moves to the opposite side of the display. I casually pick up a box to my right, and suddenly I’m in a tug-of-war with my son over the box and I jokingly say “Would you just let go of it already?!” Only it wasn’t my son. I glance to my right, he’s not there. My daughter’s still in the chair. Gasp! I see my son standing six feet away from me, mortified, shaking his head No, Dad, no. I’m thinking “If he’s there, and Chloe’s to my left, who’s on the other end of this box?” I look up to find an elderly woman scowling at me, determined to have this box. I give up the battle, smile, and say “Oh, hey, Merry Christmas!” I turn away, embarrassed (a little bit), smiling, laughing. Another memory video clip for my kids.
That’s just one of many. I am convinced God has a great sense of humor. I’m an entertainment factory.
October 2o13 marked 20 years since I was diagnosed with Ushers. I am glad that I didn’t take the advice of the initial retinal specialist. Imagine if I had stopped painting twenty years ago… What a fearful waste of life and joy and happiness and talent that would have been, akin to burying it in the sand. Instead, I continue to paint. And to my delight, I continue to improve, having recently delivered what I feel is my best portrait yet.
Is it hard? Yes, it gets more challenging as time goes on. I believe that our troubles are not about the person afflicted, but about those around him or her. My family adjusts to accommodate me- repeating things several times, making sure nothing is left out of place (TRIP!) or open (BAM! OW!), or alerting me if they walk away (Hello?EMBARRASSMENT as I assumed they’re next to me and I’m talking to…no one). Living with a disability has certainly made me sensitive, aware, and sympathetic to others that suffer.
It’s also given me a chance to trust God more and more. I have to, really. But who am I, with the little vision I have left, who am I to be painting portraits? I’m not supposed to be able to do what I do. Even eye doctors have asked “How do you manage to do what you do?!” Yet, I do. And yes, I do have to deal with the reality that I don’t know what lies ahead for me. But then again, so do you.
25,000 > 90 > 12 > 1. God seems to work in terms of reduction, doesn’t he? He did so with Gideon, with sending Jesus to fulfill the role as Savior (the odds of 350+ prophesies fulfilled in one person? Crazy! Read here for a cool explanation). He did it with me in regards to my training, and with my life. My vision field is less than 10% of normal, yet I see clearer than ever, and I see as an artist better than ever.
I have learned, as have many others, that life isn’t about 29:11. If you think it’s about having a warm, cozy, successful life, watch out. Don’t get cynical, hopeless, careless, fearful. Look at history, human nature, the heart. There is something much more grand than me and my moment. It’s not about getting, but responding. 29:10 tells us that there is a different timetable than the one we measure time with. God’s is very long term. As in eternal long term. This life isn’t about seizing my glory, but about seeing the tapestry being woven throughout many
lifetimes. A beautiful tapestry.
Lately, I have turned my focus to helping others see. I mean, to really see. In our instant-anything-knowledge age, we see the world but we don’t see our world. We see the headlines and posts, but we blindly miss the rich jewels in our paths.
And so I am building a series of paintings showing both the dignity of our race and the indignity suffered upon it. I strive to show the beauty of people suffering injustice, persecution, or just being forgotten because of age, sickness, or poverty. I’m also painting landscapes showing our incredibly beautiful land. My hope is that people will appreciate the beauty, but more importantly, see the hidden, forgotten jewels in their own sphere of influence, and begin to nurture kindness, thoughtfulness, and love in their world.
My best paintings will be painted not with oil, but with joy. I’m seeing that a smile can do wonders, and is wonderfully contagious. I’m finding that creativity itself is a beautiful thing. It can breed smiles, joy, and these make the world- yours and mine- a better place for everyone.
That’s what art should be about. That’s what Iguana Art Academy is about. Smiles from happiness within. Helping people see and respond with joy.
Thanks for hearing my story. What’s yours? I hope you will share it. We’d certainly like to help you express it. :)