To an artist, eyesight is pretty important.
Bu when Tulsa-based acrylic painter Christopher Westfall lost his, he didn't throw down his brush and abandon his career--he just started to see things a little differently.
For almost 25 years, Westfall, who has a degree in commercial art and formerly worked as a graphic designer and illustrator, has been known for his paintings of Tulsa's skyline and landscapes, earning him a devout following and enough money off of commissioned works that he supports himself and his wife Cheryl on his income as a painter alone.
"I painted my first Tulsa skyline 22 or 23 years ago, and I've been painting things associated with Tulsa ever since," Westfall said.
His brush strokes and color choices make his work distinctive and easily recognizable, and his collection of "Rainy Day Reflections" works that portray Tulsa just after an imagined light rainfall have been hugely popular with his admirers.
About a year and a half ago, though, Westfall suffered a slight stroke, and it impaired his eyesight, making it impossible for him to paint the scenes that made him so popular and fed his family.
"I was driving down the street to take Cheryl to a doctor's appointment, and all of a sudden, I couldn't see," Westfall recalled. "Everything was fine--I didn't feel anything -- and then I couldn't see."
Westfall said he didn't black out; everything just went blurry.
The year before, Westfall was diagnosed with Bell's Palsy after one side of his face was temporarily paralyzed. It happened only weeks before he was to present a one-man show at a local art gallery, and he painted until the exhibition's opening with one eye.
So when driving down the road last August, Westfall's eyesight failed, and he wasn't sure if it had something to do with the previous year's diagnosis or not.
"It ended up being my doctor's appointment instead of hers that day," Westfall said, laughing softly. "The doctor couldn't figure out what had happened. They ran MRIs and CAT scans. I saw a neurologist and two eye specialists. I had constant double vision."
After a long string of doctors' visits and tests, Westfall's doctors determined that he's had a TIA (transient ischemic attack), a mini-stroke that had killed the nerves in his eye muscles and left him with double vision and vertigo.
He couldn't see well enough to paint Tulsa, so he painted what he could see--something that had interested him for years but that he'd never tried--abstracts.
"What I found out about abstracts," he said, "is that they're the same as any other painting. They involve color and composition, but you can eliminate a lot of the details."
He called the experience "freeing."
"This is totally me," he said. "It's a piece of artwork that's my own. Anything representational is still a copy of something else, a representation of what you're painting. With abstracts, you can have movement or no movement. You can have color or no color. There are no set rules, and I love that."
In-between continued visits to the doctor, Westfall painted. After about two months, he realized he could see clearly again -- his doctors determined that his nerves would regenerate slowly throughout time -- and he went back to painting his Tulsa scenes, most of which are commissioned.
His work can usually be found on display and available to the general public at Brookside's M.A. Doran Gallery, 3509 S. Peoria Ave.
He also accepts commissions through his Web site, www.christopherwestfall.com.
And even though he can see as well as he could before his stroke, he still sometimes paints the abstracts, occasionally selling a few.
And while his style is very apparent in the abstract paintings, his clients seem to prefer what they've known and loved for the pas 23 years.
But Westfall prefers the freedom.
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