Playing golf and getting a motor home. That's how Lisa Fittipaldi envisioned her retirement, before the onetime trauma-care nurse and CPA blacked out on a highway in 1993 and descended into complete blindness soon after. The problem? Vasculitis, an autoimmune disorder that's also given her asthma, eczema, kidney disease and allergies. Now she's losing her hearing -- so far, 40 percent in one ear and 60 percent in the other.
Yet Fittipaldi, now 56, is a sought-after professional artist who paints prolifically. She's also a successful author: Her book, A Brush with Darkness: Learning to Paint After Losing My Sight, is on its third printing. It details the onset of her disease and her subsequent depression, but focuses mostly on her late-found passion: art. "Painting is my first love," she says. "It's my only way to keep reality. If I don't paint, I can't tie my shoes. If I don't paint, I can't walk out the front door."
The notion of a blind painter is inherently paradoxical. Disbelief is a common reaction; even the Today show nixed plans to feature Fittipaldi because they doubted she was "really" blind. But A Brush with Darkness explains it all: Learning to paint was a lengthy, intense and painstaking process; simply learning to draw parallel lines took weeks. She tripped and spilled things and argued with her roommate at art camp. But ten years later, she's mastering the street scene. She notes that milestones in her everyday life translate into better painting. "Just recently I got on a plane and didn't get lost in the airport," she says. "At the same time I can now do a canvas with eight to 16 people" in it.
A Brush with Darkness has moments both bitter and quixotic, but its overwhelming tone is one of relentless ambition. The book careens along with Fittipaldi yanking the reader by the lapels, her voice chatty, engaging and upbeat. She credits her newfound momentum to her blindness, saying it even helps her decide when a piece is finished. "I'm lucky I don't see it," she says. "If I'm bored with it, it's done, which is really liberating."
She and her husband, Al, now run a bed-and-breakfast, and she'd like to become a yoga master and learn multiple languages. Fittipaldi also manages The Mind's Eye Foundation, which provides computer software to visually impaired children. But art remains her focus: She's consistently attempting new forms and styles. For example, she recently completed her first still life of fruit, which features figs, oranges and lemons.
That's a novel use for those bitter little fruits life hands to you.
Fittipaldi signs A Brush with Darkness at 3 p.m. Saturday, March 12. Borders Books and Music, 9595 Six Pines Drive, The Woodlands, 832-585-0051. She also appears at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 13. Borders Books and Music, 3025 Kirby, 713-524-0200. For information, visit www.lisafittipaldi.com. Free.