Meet Gretchen Howarth | Envision Stories
A woman in a blue shirt sitting at a wooden desk smiling for a photo with paintings behind her

Meet Gretchen Howarth

Two Things I Didn’t Expect To Enjoy As Someone Who Is Visually Impaired: The White Cane And Art

By Gretchen Howarth

The thief that steals my vision is called Stargardt. With thousands of holes in my retinas it’s like seeing through a galaxy, with no center focus at all. I've learned to look around the center and through the stars.

My Love/Hate Relationship with the White Cane 

About seven years ago, I was meeting with the Orientation and Mobility specialist at Envision who was adamantly trying to get me to start using the white long cane. I was just as adamantly refusing. The last thing he said never left me. He told me that falling “is only a matter of time.” During the years since, I’ve been hyper conscience of where I’m walking whenever I’m outside my home knowing “it’s only a matter of time”.  

In the fall of 2021 on my way to see Ray Oddis, Envision’s current Certified Orientation and Mobility specialist, I said to my sister who was driving that he better not suggest that darn long cane because I’m really not interested. Shortly after our meeting began, he started going on about the white long cane. I told him I didn’t think it was necessary and he said that people don’t use it until they do, and then he told me about a visually impaired woman who did not use the long cane and tripped over a small concrete block in a parking lot. He went on to say that she broke her femur so badly that the bone poked through the skin. At this point, I half-heartedly relented and agreed to give it a try. We had a few lessons, but I still didn’t use it on a regular basis. And then one weekend about a month after my meeting with Ray, I went out of town with a friend of mine and we ended up walking all around an unfamiliar city. With trying to navigate all the dips and steps my anxiety was high and the experience was not exactly enjoyable. It occurred to me that it may have been a bit better if I’d brought the white long cane along.  

A couple weeks later, I had to go to a family wedding in New Jersey, again in unfamiliar surroundings. This time I brought my white long cane and I was amazed, absolutely amazed at how much more confident and at ease I felt using it. Ray had been right! There were actually stretches of time that I’d be talking to the person next to me and not even noticing that I was walking. All these years I had thought that the white long cane would be embarrassing and cumbersome when in reality it was just the opposite. I felt liberated and much more in control. I’m so grateful Ray was able to talk me into befriending the white long cane before “only a matter of time” happened.

How Art Happened

After being legally blind for years, in July of 2019, I had an impulse to draw this picture on the chalkboard wall in my office. When my niece came over and saw it, she insisted I post it on Facebook. Within a couple hours, my oldest sister informed me that I was to do three paintings for her living room. With absolutely no background in art whatsoever, I told her it was on a chalkboard and that I didn’t know how to paint. A couple of days later she showed up at my house with three boxes of pastels and a bunch of black construction paper and told me that I was to make her paintings. So, I did. And that was the beginning of my totally unexpected and wildly fulfilling journey as an artist.

Even though Envision has been a significant part of my life for more than ten years, I did not discover the Envision Arts program until this past year (2021). After several years of being predominantly homebound, I was urged by Ray Oddis to give the Envision art studio a try. I painstakingly got out of my comfort zone and gave it a whirl. It has dramatically changed my life. In the studio, we sometimes make jokes that my sighted friends and family just wouldn’t understand. Like receiving mail - most of us can’t read the letters and it produces anxiety and annoyance. But then when we’re together in the studio, we can just laugh about it. We are a circumstantial family that I would never give up. Someone new recently came into the studio who had suddenly gone almost completely blind a couple of years ago. She talked to me about how she never left the house and how alone she felt. I got choked up and said I truly understand and I’m glad you found us. Sarah Kephart, our teacher, not only meets us where we’re at, she also guides us to dig deep and reach far beyond the artistic potential we ever thought possible. I’m in awe of the people I’ve met in the studio; of their grace, their strength and for the astonishing artwork they produce. Sarah and Envision have now established the new Envision Arts Gallery and Community Engagement Center and I feel like being a part of this is a brand new chapter in my life that is exciting and has meaning. It is most definitely worth leaving the house.

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