Juliet Jackson: ‘Losing my sight didn’t curb my creative spirit’
Although losing her sight meant the end of artist Juliet Jackson’s love affair with painting, it sparked a new-found passion for the written word.
Words: Cheree Morrison
This article was first published in the March/April 2017 issue of NZ Life & Leisure.
Juliet Jackson has always loved to paint. A paintbrush was her companion at school and her tool while completing her degrees in fine arts from Elam and visual communication at Unitec. Juliet created abstract and figurative art, experimenting with colour, shape and surfaces, and painted portraits of friends, her brush strokes telling their stories.
One day in 2009, it all went dark. An accident left Aucklander Juliet blind in both eyes. Her favourite colours, the images she created and her identity as an artist disappeared. But creativity lives in the soul not the eyes and it wasn’t long before Juliet redirected her energy. In 2013 she completed her masters in creative writing (with first class honours) at AUT and recently the Toi Ora Trust published her first novel Dropping the Mask, completing her journey from artist to author.
“It was frustrating to lose the medium I was most comfortable with but there is an overlap in the creative process of painting and writing,” says Juliet.
“Writing fiction is a way to uncover kernels of truth and painting has the same ambition. Both are difficult but in different ways; painting is so open. There are endless possibilities. There are more clearly established conventions around the novel, although a writer can still push those boundaries.
“On the other hand, you can’t hide as easily when writing fiction; it reveals how you think. As a writer you go places emotionally that can be uncomfortable.” Gone are the days of two-finger touch-typing. She writes on a computer that repeats each letter and also complete sentences back to her. This is just one of the tools that have allowed Juliet to regain her independence.
While writing sated some of her bubbling creativity, Juliet still craved creating something with her hands. She exchanged paint for clay and took up sculpture at Toi Ora Live Arts Trust in Grey Lynn (toiora.org.nz), a creative space that supports mental health and well-being. Her first sculptures were of small animals but she has moved on to busts, a nod to her dormant love of painting the human form. Her heightened senses of touch, sound and smell create colour in both mediums; where paint once met paper, her unseen clay tells a tactile tale, and her words create worlds.
Without her sight, words have become Juliet’s lifeline. They connect her with people. Their voice is what matters. She no longer sees someone for their clothes, their haircut or their age. “It’s surprising how much information you can learn through the other senses; I can tell how a person is sitting or moving. It can be nice to be without visual distractions, it’s easier to focus on what is said. In a way, what you miss is balanced out by what is enhanced.”
Losing your sight, says Juliet, takes a level of acknowledgment and letting go. While she had regained a significant level of independence after a year, complete acceptance is still elusive. “You never truly adjust to losing your sight. There’s always this feeling of ‘when can I turn the light back on?’ But the Blind Foundation has helped to pull me out of the poor-me mindset. It’s made me realize I’m not alone and that this is a shared human experience.”
Between writing and sculpting, Juliet has joined the foundation on a few excursions, including tramping in Rotorua and venturing onto a treetop walkway. Her only complaint? The walkway didn’t feel quite high enough. “I’m keen for a little more danger.”
DOG AS MY CO-PILOT
Another tool that has helped Juliet navigate her new normal is her seven-year-old guide dog Stacey. Juliet’s companion for the past five years, standard poodle Stacey gives the labradors a run for their money. Together Juliet and Stacey can navigate six routes, including catching a bus to Toi Ora. “Guide dogs don’t come with GPS. Unfortunately, I can’t plug her in and ask for a specific address but she can find bus stops, buzzers and can avoid obstacles in my path. We have an incredible bond; I got so lucky. She’s affectionate, uplifting and loves me unconditionally.”
The Blind Foundation’s Red Puppy Appeal takes place on March 24 and 25 – find out more at blindfoundation.org.nz