Losing eyesight sharpens vision for Colorado artist Chloé Duplessis

Editor’s note: An untold number of unheralded artists live in Colorado, those creators who can’t (or don’t want to) get into galleries and rely on word of mouth, luck or social media to make a living. You’ve likely seen them on Instagram, at festivals or at small-town art fairs. This monthly series, Through the Lens, will introduce you to some of these artists.

In 2018, a Stargardt disease diagnosis for the Louisiana-born, Denver-based artist Chloé Duplessis was a wake-up call. At 39 the digital artist, muralist, photographer and oral historian was faced with losing her sight.

“As an artist, I thought, how can I go on when the very thing I do is visual?”

Stargardt Disease is a rare form of inherited macular degeneration that causes retinal degeneration, central vision loss and most often ends with almost complete blindness.

Now 44, she has lost 40% of her vision and is legally blind. “I am actively losing my vision in real time,” she explains. Duplessis doesn’t know when she is going to fully lose her vision, but the diagnosis was a pivotal point in her journey to becoming a full-time artist.

“The illusion that you control everything is just that, an illusion,” she said in an online video. “I had to ask myself, am I going to file for disability and sit at home? Is this going to be my journey? Or am I going to lean into the uncomfortable parts of this diagnosis and move forward? I decided to lean in.”

Duplessis describes herself as an oral historian, storyteller, and culture bearer. Her work focuses on creating art and immersive experiences that center around history, ancestors, accessibility and fostering healing. Her goal is to create images that elevate the unknown, illuminate the forgotten and address the present. She seeks to erode the social constructs that oppress people of color and those navigating disability.

In 2021, Chloé was commissioned to create an “I Voted” sticker for the Denver Elections Division. This sticker is the first such sticker in the country to feature braille and low vision colors, as well as scenery that celebrates indigenous cultures and aspects of American Sign Language (ASL).

Her show, “Negro Stories,” at Converge Denver debuted in 2021 using digital collage and stories to explore racism and privilege. It also examined the concepts of collective trauma and healing through the lens of racial discrimination.

“Living in a culture that exalts Eurocentric standards of beauty and champions assimilation can be exhausting. But it doesn’t stop there, because the effects of slavery and systematic oppression are ever-present…so is a deeply ingrained sense of self-hatred,” she said of the series. “Think colorism. Many of us feel as if we are consistently having to fight white America and Black Americans for space to authentically exist.”

Her upcoming show, “Sista Soldier,” at the Trinidad History Museum, runs from Sept. 23 through Oct. 14. The show will come to Denver at the end of the year or in early 2024.

We asked Duplessis some questions about her art. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: Briefly, explain your process and your evolution to where you are now as an artist.

A: I started working in photography twenty years ago, before moving into digital collage and now I work mainly in fiber and textiles. When I was younger I never had the courage to do shows. But when I got my Stargardt diagnosis it gave me courage and clarity. You can cry a river of tears when you get a diagnosis or you can harness those tears to move forward. In a way, my diagnosis granted me the permission I needed to fully embrace my creative calling. Presented with the awareness of my condition, I realized that I no longer had the luxury of moving through life without a sense of urgency and intention around my art.

Q: One of your first shows in Denver was “Negro Stories.” What led to the creation of this show?

A: For far too long, racism has been viewed as a problem strictly of the oppressed, and not that of the oppressor. By assigning the weight of racism to communities of color and relinquishing ownership, one can attempt to evade accountability; but in doing so, you are protecting the very system that has led us to our current space in history as a country. “Negro Stories” is a collection of images that examine the concept of collective trauma and healing in American history through the lens of racially-based discrimination.

Q: You were commissioned to do a mural in RiNO, can you talk about that mural?

A: In 2021, I was afforded the opportunity to create a mural in recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month with half-Deaf painter, Valarie Rose. The mural, called “Holding Hope,” is near Denver Central Market in (RiNo). It was an opportunity for two women navigating disability together to create a mural that represented marginalized communities. I love the piece because it merges two worlds and I also love it because we were blessed to make history.

Q: What is your next project?

A: I am currently the artist in residence in Trinidad at the East Street School, a Dana Crawford preservation project. The former school has been transformed into a live/work community for artists. This month, in partnership with the Trinidad History Museum, I will officially unveil my latest collections of works in a historical exhibit called “Sista Soldier.” The immersive exhibit is in celebration of Cathay Williams, the only known female Buffalo Soldier, and the first African American female to serve in the United States Army. She spent her final years in Trinidad. The exhibit will feature historical artifacts, original works of art, and handmade garments created from burlap, paper and ancestral fabric.

Q: Do you have a favorite art piece?

A: Yes! My favorite work of art is a piece I created for our six-year-old daughter, “Plaited Premises” which can be seen on my website.

Q: What memorable responses have you had to your work?

A: After I created the “I VOTED” sticker, I received an email from a woman navigating blindness. She was deeply moved, and shared that although she could not actually ‘see’ the sticker, she was encouraged to hear that the sticker would feature braille, and that it was the first time as a disabled citizen that she truly felt “seen and heard.” When accessibility is embraced as the starting point for policy, programming and design, there is no need for reasonable accommodation.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

A: The best advice that I’ve ever been given was offered by my dear grandfather, the late Dr. E. Edward Jones, Sr. As a little girl, he would always tell me to think and pray. He believed that there was nothing that could not be improved by prayer. I can recall receiving beautiful cards from my grandfather in college, and even when I started my career in my early 20s. It seemed the cards would arrive when I needed encouragement most, and they would always reference Proverbs 18:16 followed by the words “Think and Pray” and my grandfather’s beautiful signature.

Q: What advice would you offer to beginning artists?

A: Think and pray.

Q: Describe your dream project.

A: My life is a dream project. I earn a living as an artist, curator and speaker. I travel three months a year with my family, to offer talks and immersive art experiences that elevate lesser-known aspects of history and expand cultural capacity. I’m a woman and person of color raised in the deep South.

In my early twenties, I survived sexual assault, and experienced homelessness and job insecurity with my college degree in my hand. Three years later, I evacuated Hurricane Katrina, and like so many, gathered the courage to rebuild. So by the time I received word that I had Stargardt disease and would lose my vision, I was well-acquainted with poverty, privilege, opposition and the power of perception. If we choose to embrace it as such, our lives can be the dream we seek.

Any of my lived experiences could have broken me, and some nearly did. But, I am still here. And because I know that my very existence is the manifestation of my ancestors’ prayers, I embrace each day as an opportunity to create art that informs, inspires and moves us forward.

Q: Where can we see your art?

A: Online at duplessisart.com, and in-person at my studio in Trinidad.

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