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QCityMetro: Gerri Donaldson's Blind Ambition

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Gerri Donaldson with some of the artwork she's created. Photo courtesy of S. Kristi Douglas.

Gerri Donaldson poses with some of the artwork she's created. Photo courtesy of S. Kristi Douglas. The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a collaborative effort of WFAE, the Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, QCityMetro.com, Charlotte Viewpoint and UNC-Charlotte to enhance arts coverage in our region. Gerri Donaldson is a 70-year-old retired elementary school teacher with a love for beautiful things. She likes to collect artwork and surround herself with brightly colored flowers - even though she can't actually see any of them. Donaldson is blind. Diagnosed with congenital glaucoma, she began losing her vision when she was in her 50s. "I still have moments when I can see a little of some things," she said. "I may see the back of a car but not the front end. The top of a dresser but not the bottom. Half of someone's face but not the other half." There are days when, she says, it seems as if she is looking through strawberry soda or fruit punch. Other times, she describes what she sees as a camouflaged swamp. But her disability doesn't appear to have slowed her down much. Since losing her vision, Donaldson has tried a variety of new activities; her latest endeavor is creating art. She recently completed an introductory art course that was specifically designed for the visually impaired at the Charlotte Art League. For an eight-week period, she and six to 10 others from the Metrolina Association for the Blind came by bus once a week to participate in the 90-minute class. "The [instructors] refused to give us a subject," said Donaldson. "They refused to give us assistance or touch our projects. It had to be strictly our creation." Participants in the class are asked to draw on their memories and previous tactile experiences -things they've touched or tasted in the past - to create works of art. Donaldson utilized oil crayons to focus on one of her favorite subjects: sunflowers. "I remember the color of sunflowers," she said. "Sunflowers to me are a kind of mustard-like shade of gold. And in the center, the seeds are really thick. They appear to be brown from a distance, but I remember there was a lot of green in those seeds. I tried to develop sunflowers the way I remember sunflowers being. It worked out beautifully." Sandra Gray, a member of the Charlotte Art League, volunteers to teach the class and served as Donaldson's teacher. According to Gray, Donaldson and many of the students who take her class are older people who lost their vision later in life. She says the class helps them to express themselves and connect like family. "They talk about their home life," said Gray. "They talk about things that most of us who are sighted don't even think about happening to a person when they become blind and have to live in the world with no vision." Donaldson said that although she was initially among strangers, she felt a bond with her classmates by the end of the eight weeks. "There was spontaneity because we had something in common," she said. "It was good to do that and learn together and share the experience with somebody else. It was certainly wonderful to see how creative they could be because we shared each other's art." For those who have never tried their hand at art, Donaldson offers this advice: "You are missing something if you don't try it. You may just find that thing that lets you show other people who you are and what you are, if you would just put your hands in it and go for it." For more information about Donaldson's work and the Charlotte Art League, visit: www.charlotteartleague.org.