Artist's vision more than what meets eye
October 25, 2012
FORT LEE, Va. (Oct. 25, 2012) -- If the life of Devon "Von" Crew could be expressed with a work of art, it would probably be told with a 2-foot-by-3-foot, acrylic-on-canvas piece he completed and hasn't yet named.
"It's a cave," he said. "You're standing inside of it, and your view is outward."
In the painting's dark foreground, cracks in the ceiling allow rays of light to pass through. "You have stalactites hanging from the cave walls, and there's a glister look to it," added Crew.
A tinted, pink sky that Crew describes as a bit "misplaced in its color" lies at the center of tranquil-looking background, complemented by side-lit mountains on the horizon.
"My interpretation of that scene is 'escape,'" said the former post employee who recently transferred to Defense Supply Center-Richmond. "I literally, physically wanted to take my hand and that brush and those paints and create a scene for that escape."
The word "escape" in Crew's vernacular is a metaphor for the acts of artful self-expression he engaged himself in to counteract the negative emotions he sometimes felt.
"I grew up with a positive frame of mind but at the same time it was a negative outlook ... ," he recalled. "I started trying to refuse God in all areas of my life, really. I started to blame him. In my heart, I needed that blame to be placed on something or someone or some being. I was enraged in different ways."
The 22-year-old Crew grew up the third of four children in a single-parent Richmond household. His mother, Deborah, he said, worked several jobs to support the family. His two older siblings -- especially his brother, Antoine, nine years his senior -- provided the guidance and support he needed to navigate his way through the various stages of youth, he added.
"We were typical kids growing up," said Crew, "video games; going outside (to play), when it was comfortable; nothing outside of the norm."
Crew, however, experienced something as a youngster that indicated to him that he wasn't normal. One day, he spotted a man who was twisting balloons into various shapes and bolted toward him, hoping to snag one.
"As I was running, the sun was coming out and I ran into this dumpster," he said. "It knocked me backward, my back hit a fence and I just sat there (semi-conscious). I was hurt, bleeding, and I needed stitches when I got to the hospital. It was pretty bad."
Crew said his mother had known since he was a toddler that he had vision problems that would get progressively worse. Nevertheless, she reared him like a normal child. "A doctor told my mother that by the age of 5, I wouldn't have any sight at all," he said. "She just didn't believe it and didn't want to believe it. She said, 'This doctor doesn't know what he's talking about. I'm going to put this in God's hands.'
"My sight has been stable my entire life."
Crew said he suffers from retinitis pigmentosa and is
legally blind. Symptoms of the genetically based, degenerative eye disease include tunnel vision, blurred vision, poor color separation and slow adjustment to drastic changes in light conditions. Crew, a Virginia Lighthouse for the Blind employee, said he has virtually no peripheral vision, and the vision he does have is somewhat blurry. Jazzman Woody Shaw and former mayor of San Francisco Willie Brown are two notables who have the disease.
While the dumpster accident was the first time Crew knew he had a problem, it wasn't an isolated event. There were more over the course of his youth.
"They added up and stacked on top of each other," he said. "That's where the rage came from."
The anger resulting from the realization that he had a potentially life-changing disease caused him to be angry at God and threw him into the darkest of places, much like the foreground of the cave in his painting. Art, a talent he had cultivated since elementary school, became a place of solace.
"It was almost like a pool," he said. "You're filthy with stress, anger and dissatisfaction with your life -- it's all filth -- and you jump face-first into this pool. And as soon as you hit that surface, it's gone. When you put the brush to the canvas, you don't have stress and you don't have anger. You're free from all of that."
What motivates Crew to paint often takes a backseat to questions of how he accomplishes such a task as a vision-impaired artist. Helen Milner, his supervisor at VLB and one of his biggest supporters, said those thoughts emerged when she first saw Crew doodling on one of his breaks.
"Several immediate questions came to mind," she said. "'How does a young man who has been determined to be legally blind see what he manages to see?' 'How does he manage to put his thoughts on canvas?' and 'How does he manage to coordinate those colors in something that he sees as a legally blind person that comes out as a different vision to a sighted person?'"
Crew doesn't mention whether or not his eyesight has limited him as an artist in any way. Generally, he said, his works start with visualization. Once he has the idea solidified, he starts on the canvas, working his way out from an area as small as a computer pixel, painstakingly completing each until the work is finished.
Furthermore, Crew said he has such an intensely high level of interest in his craft that he has been able to overcome any real or perceived shortcomings. For example, he said, he learned to attain certain levels of texture in his paintings by "sensing the weight of the brush," then dabbing or stroking accordingly.
In his adolescent years, Crew said he began to mature and experienced an elevated consciousness. He became more accepting of himself and his surroundings and learned to use his senses to gather information and formulate it in ways to create forms of expression. The lights of opportunity and self-fulfillment shone upon him like the rays of lights in the painting where it slips through cracks in the cave's ceiling.
"By the time I started high school," he said, "I felt like art was a part of me. I saw people as art. I saw objects and animals, the wind as art. I started to see things differently."
Conversely, Crew was still a fledgling artist -- raw in talent and limited in style to a vein of Japanese anime, according to one of his instructors at Meadowbrook High School.
"I was belittled by a teacher in such a way that I was forced to open my horizon, to see another side of art," he said. "That's when I stopped using references like photographs or objects placed in front of me. I started to tap into another level of my consciousness."
As a result, Crew eventually moved toward interpretive expression and worked toward seeing things beyond the literal or "seeing things as they can or should be."
Crew said he had achieved his goals during his senior year at Meadowbrook. He said he was creating works strictly from imagination and working in a style he cultivated himself. Crew said he felt a sense of elation, hope and optimism.
"It reminded me of a parent bird that lets the child of the nest go free," he said. "You have the sense of fear and the sense of joy and excitement all at the same time."
And a sense, said Crew, that he doesn't have to be bound by any physical or other limitation.
"I feel like if I'm ready for art, then I'm ready for life," he said. "I feel like there's always going be something, as far as challenges go, that I'm going to get snagged on. Like I said before, I can choose to jump in the pool and escape from life, but I can also jump in that pool and think about how I can fix things -- not fix them through anger or rage -- but fix them through peace and tranquility."
A state of peace and tranquility is where one might find Crew at this moment in time. The background of the cave painting with the light pink sky that is "misplaced in its color" and complemented by the side-lit mountains on the horizon is a fitting metaphor for someone who has earned the right to walk in sunshine