Last year, the Louisville artist and musician John King posted some innocuous photos on his Instagram that depicted abnormalities in his eyes. He figured it was just a minor broken blood vessel that happens during allergy season or from a sneeze or cough.
But after he began to lose some vision and his Instagram followers who had some medical background expressed concern, he decided to have it checked out. Several months and specialists later, doctors still are unsure exactly what his condition is, but they’ve narrowed it to a neurological disorder and suspect King will lose his vision in about three years.
King’s latest exhibition, “The Eyesight Series,” explores the artist’s fears and emotions through glasswork, and it’s now on display at CRAFT(s) Gallery & Mercantile through July 31. The show features about 20 pieces created from post-consumer glass materials, some of which had been sitting in a field in Southern Indiana for half a century.
Insider talked with King about the grave diagnosis, his artwork and how he’s trying to make a living in Louisville working a minimum wage job with escalating medical bills.
Insider Louisville: Can you tell us what “The Eyesight Series” means to you?
John King: The theme of this show is all about coming to terms with losing my eyesight, the uncertainty of how long I have with my eyesight, and the lengths I have gone (sometimes in total desperation) to try and save it. Learning that I was losing my eyesight was crushing and became all-consuming for a time.
I would think, “What will I miss the most?” Driving along expanses of land? Cities in the distance at night drenched in street lights? Seeing the faces of loved ones? And then it occurred to me that I’d miss seeing anything and everything.
So the work itself involves eyes. I used many glass techniques to create this show, so there are eyes sandblasted on glass, cast in glass, painted, chipped and acid-etched on glass.
I honestly don’t know about the future. There are so many factors involved. Eyesight is one of them, but certainly there has been great work created without eyesight. Coincidentally, there is an art exhibit right now at the University of Cincinnati of work from artists who have gone blind during the course of their careers.
IL: Will you continue making art after this show?
JK: I initially thought this might be the last show I would do, at least for the foreseeable future, given my eye problems. I also recently have been staying with my mother — making minimum wage has proven more difficult than imagined now with health problems, and the rising cost of rent in Louisville kind of did me in.
You would think a college degree and a diverse résumé could land better opportunities, but I haven’t had much luck.
IL: Without your own studio or apartment, how did you create these pieces?
JK: I have always had a studio before, but this time I had to create work differently. I would work a couple days at one friend’s shop and a couple days at another friend’s shop and later hope all the parts and pieces fit together. A few times I rented a cheap motel room to work on the sculptures, and sometimes I used a wooden board to make my mother’s guest bed into a work table.
I have never been so nervous in my life about an art opening before! I had no idea if they would fit together until the day of the opening. It was intense trying to get work done while having no studio or apartment or even a table, but I am glad I stuck it out. It was stressful at times, but it was rewarding at the end.
IL: When you got the diagnosis, was it something you wanted to keep to yourself, or was doing this show a way of putting it all out there?
JK: This is an interesting question, because in a way, there wasn’t a time I decided to go public or keep it a secret — it kind of unfolded publicly, mostly due to social media.
Before I realized there was something major happening, I would post pictures on Instagram, like everyone does — pictures of me in the car or being bored at work or something, but some days I’d post an eye filled with blood but have no idea why.
It was a few people on Instagram who had some medical knowledge who noticed several symptoms over a period of time and sent me messages suggesting it could possibly be a serious situation and urged me to get checked out. It wasn’t painful at first, so I ignored it, but more and more people kept commenting, so I finally went to a doctor.
And even then I kept posting on Instagram, because I was going to eye doctors who could only affirm that I was losing my eyesight but didn’t know why. It was this constant crowdsourcing on Instagram that kept paying off when conventional methods failed.
Even now, specialists have only been able to narrow it down to three or four possibilities, all of them terrifying, and it takes so long in this country to get specialized treatments. I have been waiting six months to see a neurologist, and during this time things got worse, so I again turned to social media for help.
IL: So social media has been an important part of this process?
JK: I do struggle with the issue that it is public knowledge, especially given that I don’t have definite answers yet, but without it being public, I would have lost most of my eyesight by now. Because I was so public, I was able to enlist help from people all over the world while waiting to get tests.
A friend in the medical field in New York City put me on the multiple sclerosis diet (called the “Wahls Protocol”) and got me started on anti-inflammatory supplements like turmeric and CBD oil, which has helped significantly. Every six months I see an ophthalmologist who tracks my progress.
On my first visit, the test showed I would probably be legally blind within three years, but on my last appointment I was told it could be as much as 13 years — which is a hell of a better prognosis! And this is all thanks to social media and friends joining together to help.
IL: Is there a silver lining in any of this?
JK: The other bonus to being public about it is that it gives me an opportunity to speak about the state of public health in Kentucky. I think it’s easy to forget just how many people do not make enough money or have jobs that have health care benefits. And the governor is trying to cut benefits to 500,000 Kentuckians.
If I lose my coverage, that 13 years will turn into three or less very quickly. And the goofy part of all of this is that it’ll cost the state a lot more, in the long run, letting me go blind than to keep me insured.
It’s appalling that we do not have a living wage in this country and that states can deny low-income residents health care.
If my story helps remind people of how this country and state treats low-income citizens, who in turn put pressure on elected officials to fix this problem, then it is worth it for me to suffer a little indignity here and there.
Even if it turns out to have some super embarrassing moments along the way.
CRAFT(s) Gallery is located at 572 S. Fourth St. “The Eyesight Series” continues through July 31.