Cathy Spence’s last solo exhibition at The Art Studio, Inc. was two decades ago, when she was a recent college graduate. Now she’s back with “The Crooked Eye,” a new collection of photographs, opening Feb. 6.
The show focuses on 13-year-old Wesley, who Spence describes as “an ordinary boy with an extraordinary appearance.” Wesley has oculocutaneous albinism.
“Being that he has albinism, he’s been singled out so often,” Spence said. “When walking through a mall, he’s very aware of people looking at him. Sometimes, it’s really it’s really wonderful. They’ll stop and say, ‘I love your hair’ and ‘Man, you look so cool with your sunglasses’ and things like that, yet it’s still being singled out. That was that was always kind of an issue for him.
“And here I am doing it again with my photography, but I hope that it reflects the all sides of it.”
Spence said most people see the obvious physical traits — lack of melatonin, light hair, light skin — but Wesley also has issues with his vision, which led to the title of the show.
“He has what’s called strabismus, which is the lazy eye,” Spence said. “That’s normal for people with albinism, they have a lots of vision issues — I can get caught up in talking about the whole science behind it, nerves are rerouted the wrong way. And his eyes, his muscles are weak, and some blonde fundus, which gives them the appearance sometimes of the pink, or red eyes, it’s just light reflecting off the back of their eyes. That doesn’t happen for people with melatonin.
“The idea is people telling him, he had a lazy eye. One day he told his sister, ‘It’s not a lazy eye, it’s a crooked eye.’ That’s his way of dealing it. (He didn’t like) the connotation of lazy, it’s just crooked.
“With a lot of my photographs, I tend to not worry about the highlights being blown out, or soft depth of field, or, you know, just little blurriness to some of them, because that’s how he sees.”
People with albinism are perceived as having an other-worldliness about them, a magical mix, that separates them from ordinary people, Spence said, with the media portraying them as evil monks or having a supernatural quality, like the character in the movie “Powder.”
“They’re really just regular people, you know,” she said. “He’s an ordinary boy with an extraordinary appearance.
“It’s hard not to play upon the skin and the hair, but I hope there’s more to it than just that. With these (photos), I hope you catch on that he is just this kid, you know, to get sunburned, who has issues with vision, who feels isolated occasionally, because of it.”
Pence’s photographs in “The Crooked Eye” conjure up magical, ethereal qualities, but one image wonderfully captures his ordinariness. Wesley sits cross legged in front of a TV, game console in hand, completely lost in a video game. Rather than focusing on Wesley, our eyes are drawn to the dog on the left side of the image, who positively cries out for attention.
Spence earned a studio art photography degree from Lamar University in 1997. She said she didn’t really know what she wanted to major in until she took a class from renowned photographer Keith Carter.
“I took the class and I’m going to tell you, I was terrible — but I loved it,” Spence said. “Keith will even tell you how I was not one of the top students by any means.”
Spence said Carter had a huge library of photography books in his office and she would pore through them, learning everything she could.
“While prints were washing or I had any downtime, I’d go in there and pull out books and books and books, and sit there and just study them,” she said. “You can go now and, thanks to the internet, you can see all these great photographs that I didn’t really have the opportunity to see except through these books. Now you can go on Instagram and see wonderful photographs.
“But I’m telling you, the computer is not made for you to sit there and study this stuff. Not like a book is. It’s designed for you to flip and swipe and and never really rest — it’s called surfing for a reason, right? If you can get good books, you have the opportunity to just sit there and study these photographs.”
As time went on, Spence’s studies paid off.
“Keith will tell you he used to tell students, ‘I don’t know what happened with Kathy. She was an average student, and suddenly a light went on,’” Spence said. “It’s like, no, that’s not how it happened at all. I studied it. I didn’t realize it was affecting me like it did. I didn’t know it was going to actually make a difference. So, I looked at these images, looked at his books book over and over again. Even photographers I didn’t care for, I studied this stuff. And so, that’s how it started, being a very average student who just took a real interest in it.”
Even though she had a passion for photography, Spence said she wasn’t sure it was a good career choice.
“I tell the story that I was sitting around the drying table and I said something about, ‘Well, it’s time for me to pick a degree and I don’t know what I want to do? And Keith said, ‘Well, I was looking at the Parade magazine, Sunday. and it said a dental hygienist is one of the top careers.’ (I thought), ‘Yeah. No. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but no.’ It took me a couple of more semesters before I realized that photography was going to be what it was. I thought about art education, which was would have probably been a much more stable career, but I wanted to do photography.”
Shortly before graduating, Spence started working as Carter’s assistant, which was another step in building confidence as an artist.
“I suffer from feeling (I’m) a little inadequate, so I make up for that by maybe working just a little bit harder on things,” she said. “So, I went in, scared to death, and I just tried to dedicate that time to being the best assistant I could. No matter what, there’s always that person who’s better than you. And you just have to say, ‘OK, well, my goal is to be as good as them. And as soon as you get as good as them, there’s going to be someone else better than you. That keeps me going, keeps me learning.”
Spence said she had a good run for a few years, showing in various galleries in Texas, including the Wittliff Gallery, before family — she has four children including Wesley — took priority. She said Carter would quote Charles Bukowski’s poem “Air and Light and Time and Space,” which argues that no matter what is going on in the world, you work as an artist.
“Boy, that sounds really great, but it’s kind of a privileged point of view, because there is somebody washing those dishes and taking care of the kids — and that turns out to be me,” she said. “I was still working for Keith, but my work was suffering for a while. I raised my kids and was always itching to go back to it.
“I always said that, even if I wasn’t successful as a photographer, I was still going to go into create. My mom was a great seamstress. So, if it was sewing, you know, I was going to create — cook — you just have that need, right? That desire to create.
“It took me a while. And Keith kept encouraging me to photograph Wesley.”
Spence’s 2000 exhibition featured images of children, her own and those of friends and neighbors. And now she is back with youth still her focus. She said children inspire her because they have very few inhibitions.
“I still go (to) my childhood and, and the magic that was there — and a little bit of the darkness, and I like to kind of touch on that,” she said. “I grew up, my dad read Edgar Allan Poe to me —there’s a dark side, and (children) are very much aware of that I believe. Most kids are. Of course, it comes across a little more for them as supernatural, but life has a dark side to it. They’re aware of that.”
Spence said that Wesley doesn’t mind being the subject of her show, but he likes it better when it’s videos where she’s not taking him out of his element to photograph him.
“He treats it, probably, like any teenage boy would,” she said. “Occasionally, he’ll tell me what he doesn’t like, and there’s been some pretty good photographs that I’ve pulled out because he just didn’t care for them. And then there’s times he’s perfectly happy and he comes up with things to do.”
Wesley may be an ordinary boy with an extraordinary appearance, but it takes Spence’s extraordinary eye to show us his world.
“The Crooked Eye” opens Feb. 6 and runs through Feb. 27 in The Art Studio, Inc.’s gallery, located at 720 Franklin in downtown Beaumont. Hours are noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday-Saturday.
The exhibition will be able to be viewed virtually at http://www.artstudio.org or on the organization’s social media platforms.
For more information, call 409-838-5393, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story by Andy Coughlan
This feature was originally published on The Art Studio, Inc. website