I lived in Austin for several years in the mid 80’s. I shared the house on Avenue B with two women and it was just a few blocks from the State School for the Blind. Between the street and the sidewalk, I dug up the grass and put in a vegetable garden. There were also zinnias and cosmos down the center.
My cat—named Cowface—shared the black and white markings of a Holstein. Cowface would lie on the sidewalk in the sun eyeing butterflies hunting nectar, often too sleepy to play chase after napping on the warm concrete.
Those who trained students on how to cane made it a habit to walk in front of our house to teach the blind what happens when they encounter a grumpy ball of fur while tapping. Cowface would always think it was a game, and the students would get to a point where they realized what was going on.
Sometimes, a student who had already been by would expect Cowface and tap the cane until he came off the porch to teach his lesson. Those canes gave the blind courage to explore new places and acted as magic wands to create wonderful journeys. I always remembered that.
So, blind persons’ canes became an important image in my later work. Sometimes I only needed to render a cane’s red end, and a drawing seemed complete. I bought several used canes, and even went out on the streets a few times just to see how differently I was treated by pedestrians and traffic. People are kind to those with canes. Strangers cooperate with each other to help those with canes.
For the last few years, my mom has needed a cane to get around. They are all over her house: by the back door, in the back seat of the car, next to the bed. They give her balance. Her sight is fine, but her cane, like the blind cane, boosts confidence.
I find that canes are grounding, literally and figuratively. There’s a sense of place created by using them. There’s a rhythm to the tapping that can’t be ignored. I used to keep a few sturdy sticks tucked away at the Arboretum in Houston that I could easily find. I somehow felt safer and more equipped to walk the trails at sunset. I could turn over leaves at the trail edges to find skinks.
Ladders are energetically similar to canes. They ground - they balance. The difference is that they connect to above rather than below. I use ladders in my studio sometimes, standing on rungs to paint for hours. I have used them in several jobs, such as years of changing bulbs and adjusting gallery lights or trimming trees. My monocular vision leaves me fearless going up ladders, yet always unsure taking that first step back down toward the earth.