Legally Blind Artist Stephen Lapthisophon Challenges Students and Viewers to Open Their Eyes Wide

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In this week's Dallas Observer we profile 30 of the metro area's most interesting characters, with new portraits of each from local photographer Stanton Stephens. See the entire Dallas Observer People Issue here.

Stephen Lapthisophon's studio is a mess. It's not disordered, really; the rooms of the converted apartment and garage are organized enough. But they're filled with so much stuff: paint, hardware, wood, Italian dictionaries, anthologies of world literature and in-progress artwork, including some made of maps or series of numbers.

You could have predicted this -- should have, really -- from an artist who last year had two works in the Dallas Museum of Art comprising bacon, eggshells and coffee grounds, and whose recent show featured a projector looping political text and a room influenced by the writing of a Russian formalist. Lapthisophon's work looks at big issues and makes broad connections, and does it through a lot of different materials. Things get cluttered. But that's the way he sees his art, and the rest of the world.

"The things I can't see now aren't the things I was never interested in," says the Oak Cliff artist, who lost his sight to nerve damage in 1994. It's those fine details, things that require narrow focus, that Lapthisophon, who's 57, has never had time for. The technical details of a piece never appealed to him as much as the big ideas. Not being able to see the minutiae only made him more strident in those beliefs.

Formerly the artist in residence at the University of Texas at Dallas, Lapthisophon has been at UT Arlington for the last few years, teaching both art history and studio classes. He's one of those rare art professors who don't feel that teaching disrupts his own time in the studio. He's even taught kindergarten in Chicago and works with high schoolers in the summer. "I'm enlivened by interaction with students and rewarded by their successes," he says.

A goal of his work is to force people to examine the way they see and connect things, and he uses as his aide his unique ability to understand how humans rely on all of their senses. Lapthisophon lost his sense of smell from sinus problems once. For people with sight, who don't realize all the olfactory cues they get when they walk into a room, it wouldn't have made much difference. But without scents, everything was disorienting. Most people, he says, "aren't alert enough viewers" -- or smellers -- "to pick up on things."

Even before he lost his vision, Lapthisophon was fascinated by broad and interconnected ideas. Since then, the nature of his work hasn't changed. Only his drive to produce has intensified. "It gives you the energy to not be defeated by something," he says.

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