American Action Fund for Blind Children and Adults
Future Reflections
       Fall 2016       GRAPHICS

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Figurative Vision

by Hayden Dahmm

Hayden DahmmFrom the Editor: Hayden Dahmm earned a degree in engineering from Swarthmore College and spent the past year continuing his studies in London. He was awarded an NFB National Scholarship in 2014.

When I was a teenager, my passion was the visual arts. I wrote and illustrated a series of comic books, sold my original pastel drawings, and even had paintings displayed in the US Capitol. When they saw my art, strangers often were confused to learn that I was legally blind. My abilities seemed to them incompatible with my disability. One woman even asked if I drew by smelling the colors!

In fact, I compensated for my poor vision with a determination to create. I spent hours with my face almost touching the pastel paper, leaving my nose coated with a rainbow of chalk dust. For fine detail, I placed my drawings under a magnifying television, moving my pencil by staring at the monitor as if it were a video game.
In a strange way, my blindness actually may have enhanced my art. "While you might not be able to see well," an art instructor once told me, "you know how to look." Being legally blind meant that I could never see details; rather, I was forced to see the larger composition and determine which elements deserved scrutiny.

When making a painting, the goal is not to capture an image exactly, but to reduce the image to its important features. In a peculiar way, I think, my eyesight helped me edit the visual world.

While I was in high school, my eye condition progressed, leaving me with no functional vision upon graduation. At the same time, my interest shifted from art to science. Although my reduced vision made drawing an increased challenge, this was not the reason for my change of focus. Art allowed me to create for myself, but I saw science as a way to create for others. At Swarthmore College I studied engineering to understand how technology can address global environmental and social issues.

Being a blind engineer presents unique challenges. Engineers use diagrams and graphs to communicate a range of concepts, but none of these visual aids was accessible to me. Working with my professors and classmates, I collected a set of tools and techniques that communicated graphics into my domain. While much credit goes to the support and generosity of my college, I attribute some of my success to my background in art.

First of all, art taught me to be imaginative with the tools I had available. In a mechanical engineering course, I developed an understanding of system diagrams by constructing physical representations out of LEGOs, string, plastic bottles, and random objects pulled from my backpack. Since I had a functional system to toy with, I actually gleaned greater understanding than a line diagram could communicate.

My experience with drawing also taught me to construct an image in my mind's eye. When a professor described a diagram, I could envision a representation. While not a substitute for the actual image, this mental image helped me better follow along in lectures. Engineering required the same determination that drove me to put my face a centimeter from the paper when I made a painting.

Having figurative vision does not require literal vision. Instead, it involves a different way of interpreting the facts of the world. Although my blindness can be a limitation in engineering, I truly see things differently. I hope that my alternative perspective might help me in making a contribution.

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