The first thing you notice about Betsy Clayton’s house in Dresher are the gardens. Even in the midst of an August heat wave, they’re lush with blooms: golden black-eyed Susans, dancing pink cleomes and purple loosestrife, and a spectacular white tree hydrangea thick with immense cone-shaped flower heads. She does it all herself, though a teenaged grandson helps with some of the harder chores, like pruning.
The garden extends from the front to the back of her house in Philadelphia’s Montgomery County suburbs, where it’s framed by a wall of windows in her family room like an immense mural—a mural she can’t see.
At the age of 30, with eight children, Clayton learned that she was going blind. She has a genetic, early-onset form of macular degeneration, an incurable eye disease that leads to the deterioration of the macula, a small, central part of the retina that controls visual sharpness in the center of the eye. She still has some peripheral vision, but the disease has already robbed her sister, Carol Saylor, of most of her sight.
“She really did a lot for me,” says Clayton, a tiny woman with snowy white hair and cornflower blue eyes. One of the best things her sister did, she says, was introduce her to the art of ceramic sculpture. Saylor is a well known ceramicist, with a degree from Tyler School of Art, who served on the board of National Exhibits by Blind Artists for 20 years.
Both women will have work on display starting on September 22 at the All About Art event at MossRehab’s Elkins Park, Pa., campus, 60 Township Line Road. MossRehab is the largest provider of physical medicine and rehabilitation in the Philadelphia region and a member of the Einstein Healthcare Network. The juried exposition and sale, which runs through November 4, is open to professional artists with physical, cognitive, visual and hearing disabilities.
When Clayton was forced to give up the day care business that helped send all of her children to college, she began attending classes with her sister. She wasn’t a stranger to sculptural art. She made costumes for her children out of papier-mâché as they were growing up. She created posters and art for the holidays. “I was always doing weird things, like making a giant poster with black cats and witches for Halloween that we put out in front of the house,” she says, laughing.
Clayton and her sister grew up in an artistic household in Abington, also in Montgomery County. Their father was a photographer and could both design and build houses. Both parents were avid garden designers and encouraged their daughters to express their own creativity through arts, crafts, and play.
The first class she took with her sister was called “Form in Art,” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which was designed for people who are blind or have a visual impairment. “It was a wonderful program, really outsider art, where we did all kinds of wild things,” says Clayton. “I have a five-foot papier-mâché sculpture in the basement. We did some very ambitious projects.” She entered her first show at Wills Eye Hospital, where she had been treated for her condition, and continues to show regularly at MossRehab. “I’ve had something in the Moss show every year since I’ve been doing it.”
She still takes classes twice a week at Allen’s Lane Art Center, in Philadelphia’s Mount Airy neighborhood. A friend, or her husband, Roy, will drive her there. (“If it wasn’t for him, I’d be buried,” she says of her husband, a computer programmer now retired, whom she married when she was still a teen. “With eight children, he needed to keep everything organized. Fortunately, he was very energetic.”)
Her work, even when she was drawing, focuses on what she knows best: children and parents. “I like to do children, and mother and child pieces,” she explains. Her approach to art is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s. When asked how he created his marble statutes, he reportedly responded, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
Clayton starts with a pile of clay. “I start by taking a handful of clay and piling one on top of another and then it becomes something. It says this is what I am and I make it,” she says.
While sculpture may seem like the most apt visual art for the visually impaired, ceramics offers some unique challenges, even for the sighted. Because ceramics are kiln-fired—baked in an oven at anywhere from 1,800 to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit—there’s a risk that the clay, a watery medium, can build up so much steam that the piece can explode in the kiln. So it needs to be hollowed out and air dried before firing.
“It’s hard to hollow out, especially for a blind person,” explains Clayton. Artists use their hands, wires, and other tools to remove excess clay from inside their sculptures. Virtually blind, Clayton has to go entirely by feel. But she was determined to perfect the technique.
“When I was first taking classes, that teacher would hollow out for us,” she says. She had made a piece in which two figures, a man and woman, were standing side by side, a little apart, and her head was leaning against his. “When the teacher hollowed it out, he wound up sticking them together. The space I’d put in there was gone. From then on I knew I had to learn to hollow out. It was my work and he had changed it.”
That’s not to say she doesn’t occasionally ask for help. “Even though as you lose your sight you get better with your hands, you do need the help of a sighted person sometimes,” she admits. “When I was taking a class, I asked one of the volunteers for help with a piece. Something just didn’t seem right. He said, ‘That head doesn’t have a chin. All your stuff has no chins. I said, ‘Why didn’t you tell me that before?’” She makes a face, feigning annoyance. “Now,” she says laughing, “I’m very careful to make chins.”