A BLIND painter and former UCC lecturer is taking the art world by storm as he hosts his first online exhibition.
Robert Fourie suffers from retinitis pigmentosa, which resulted in him gradually losing his eyesight over time. Rather than give up on painting, Robert has made it his passion and adapted to life with a disability using several creative means.
The Turners Cross local now creates all of his artwork on an electronic canvas. The device was introduced to him by a young cousin in Australia who had been using it for school work. Through the closeness and brightness of the screen, Robert is now able to make out certain images.
It was not until later in life that the South African native pursued his love of art. In the years leading up to a battle with meningitis — unrelated to his sight loss — Robert had made it his life’s mission to help deaf children in the Cork, Limerick, and Kerry. The job was not without its challenges as Robert explains.
“I came to Cork in 1999 as a paediatric audiologist,” he says. “That was how I started off in Ireland. It was a rewarding, but also very stressful, job as the waiting lists at the time were very long. I was responsible for hearing aids in Cork City and county, Kerry city and county, and Limerick City and county.
“Back then I used to drive around while I still had reasonably good eyesight. I would travel around doing these audiology clinics, testing hearing aids and making moulds. I could only drive during the day as I had night blindness. If I was driving for two hours during the wintertime I’d need to wait for the sun to rise, which meant my clinic had to start later.”
Robert found himself up against a whole other set of challenges after contracting meningitis.
“I contracted meningococcal meningitis and almost died. I went back to South Africa to recover and took up a job as a lecturer there.
“However, I missed Cork and my friends, and knew I had to get back.”
Robert spent a number of years working at St Columbus National School’s unit for deaf children in Douglas and later took up a post at University College Cork.
“I was the first lecturer in the speech and hearing sciences department in UCC back in 2003,” he said.
He eventually took early retirement and describes his dramatic sight loss as a very difficult time.
“I always knew that I would lose my eyesight. However, it still came as a difficult time in my life because of the uncertainty it generated. As time went by my eyesight was getting worse. By 2013, I couldn’t see things like steps or children on the street, so had to use a cane. Exams had to be read to me before I could issue a mark. I was finding it very difficult to carry out complex tasks on my computer.”
Robert immersed himself in painting and says he owes a much to UCC’s documentary filmmaker Stephen Bean who he described as his mentor.
“I was lucky enough to get advice from Stephen who is artistically trained,” he said.
Robert says that much of his artwork is derived from his subconscious.
“I don’t always know the meanings behind the paintings I do. Sometimes it’s as if the painting has me under its control.
“Often, things will emerge from my subconscious and turn into a painting. Even though I can’t see images around me, the images in my mind are crystal clear. I can get into great detail in a painting and feel such love for it when it’s done.”
Art provides Robert with a welcome escape from the everyday challenges he faces.
“People are on their phone so much these days, which is quite annoying because they often bump into me. Some people don’t know the meaning of a white cane, which is quite surprising. However, people are often too preoccupied with their phones to notice.”
Painting also helped him through the social isolation of lockdown.
“There is a huge social dimension to this,” he said of blindness. “It can be difficult for a single person to meet new people. One of the biggest problems is loneliness. I like hugs and being with people. Physical contact is one of the most basic human needs. When you can’t be with people and smell them and feel their warmth is hugely difficult. When you can’t see a person’s emotions you can become very disconnected.
“One of the sights I miss the most is people’s eyes.”
He explained why lockdown had such an impact on him.
“I can recognise my friends by their smell and that’s something I really miss. Everyone has their own scent which is something you are more aware of if you have suffered with sight loss. You miss out on these physical sensations and it’s only when you pay attention to these other senses that you realise just how important they are. In that respect, lockdown had a deep impact on me emotionally.”