How visual artist Kendall Cowle uses photography to reframe the CVI experience

Visual artist Kendall Cowle shares her art, her story, and her insight on how art can be used to help others understand CVI experiences.

Black and white headshot of visual artist Kendall Cowle

Kendall (Kenny) Cowle was in a college visual arts class when the teacher pointed out her life model drawing was missing an arm. It wasn’t until she walked up to the model that she understood.

“I wasn’t drawing something that was physically in front of me because my brain wasn’t seeing it,” Kenny says.

The experience ultimately led to a CVI diagnosis. While the diagnosis wasn’t life-changing – after all, she’d lived with CVI since birth – it gave Kenny a better understanding of why she perceives the world in her unique way.

“You can only paint what you see, and what I saw was missing a person’s arm. And that showed me that there was a difference, which I didn’t know about before. I didn’t need a CVI diagnosis to tell me that because my art allowed me to work it out myself.”

People thought Kenny was a clumsy, quirky child. She has been known for such mishaps as riding her bike into a canal or boarding a flight to Dubai when she intended to go to Dublin. She came up with her own adaptations to participating in school and activities – for example, it was difficult to read music and play simultaneously, so she relied on memorization. She even wrote upside down in her workbooks. 

“I think for the most part, you adapt where you can because if you waited for the world to adapt to you, you’d never do anything,” she explains.

“In some ways I was never exposed to that much negativity because no one ever knew about my vision. So, at 12 or 13 years old, I wasn’t told I can’t do things because my vision doesn’t let me. I just kind of pushed through… there was no reason for anyone to tell me not to.”

Always highly creative, she embraced the arts and excelled. Kenny studied visual communication, specifically photography, at Birmingham City University in the UK, receiving first class honors. She went on to receive a Master of Research in Fine Art with distinction from The University of Worcester. 

A swirling blue ribbon seemingly floats in space on top of a black background

Painting outside the lines

Not only did art school lead to a medical referral and CVI diagnosis but, perhaps more importantly, it led to a realization that art theory comes from one perspective.

“All of a sudden, you’re presented with these ideas about how you’re supposed to see and how people see art,” she says.

When confronted with what she describes as a “paint by number” education system, it became clear to Kenny that her artwork would always push boundaries.

Visual arts education “is teaching you how to create an image which is perfect to the typical perspective,” Kenny explains. “You know, the golden spiral, golden ratio with perspectives and where you put people in a picture can change the person’s perspective on how they view it… But I can never do that because my vision was always going to be slightly different. 

“So, then it became kind of like a judgment against my pictures and fitting into the rules of what others expected it to be.”

Kenny found it anxiety-provoking and irritating to constantly hear she was doing something different. But she knew art would be a powerful platform for demonstrating that there are many ways to see the world.

Reframing ‘normal’ vision

Kenny firmly rejects the idea that certain types of vision are better, that there is normal vision and everything else is broken. She uses optical illusions as an example of how neurotypical vision can be “defective.”

Fraser spiral optical illusion
The Fraser spiral optical illusion creates the impression of a spiral pattern radiating from the center, even though the pattern is a series of concentric circles. Kenny says, “I do not see the spiral as described by those with neurotypical perception but observe only the individual circles.”
Checkered black and white optical illusion
The café wall optical illusion is a series of black and white rectangles that appear to be sloping but are actually parallel. Kenny says, “I do not see the wall to be distorted as described by those with neurotypical perception but only observe the horizontal lines to be parallel.”

“What is bonkers, [is that someone with] the average neurotypical perspective would look at an optical illusion and see the effects of it. Because your brain can’t focus, it creates an illusion. That’s a defect, but everybody agrees with it. We don’t want to talk about the whole population as having some form of defect, which is essentially the way you could look at it,” she states.

Black and white photo of a dark black hexagon object

‘More than meets the eye’

Kenny describes her work as “abstract, conceptual” and that there is “more to it than meets the eye.” Even before her diagnosis, Kenny’s work has been about “challenging people’s viewpoints and perspectives on the world and what they see.”

Photos reveal aspects of a photographer’s perspective. Maybe the scene is shifted to the left or a little fuzzy. And Kenny says there are “loads more things in a photo than you realize at first. I could take a picture of a car and then realize it’s actually a whole park of cars.

“Photography, and art generally, is one of those things which I think will narrow the accessibility gap.” 

This paradigm drives her research as a PhD candidate at Birmingham City University, where she is developing new understandings of CVI through photography. 

One of the things that my research is trying to break down is this binary perspective on visual experience, that somehow there’s a right way and a wrong way. I want people to see CVI and that people’s experiences are different. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not equally valid.

Kenny Cowle
A photo of concrete buildings taken through a cracked lens that makes the buildings appear misaligned and distorted

Flipping the narrative

Kenny doesn’t deny the ongoing challenges, including the limitations others try to place on her.

When she first shared her diagnosis at school, Kenny was told that she was no longer permitted to use the dark room. The school wanted to mitigate risk, even though she’d been safely using it for 18 months. 

She looks at society, systems, and the environment as disabling factors, rather than CVI.

I try to often say I have visual differences, rather than being impaired. You know, I don’t see myself being impaired by my vision. In most cases, I think society impairs me because it doesn’t accept my vision.

Kenny Cowle

“It’s almost like you’ve created this perspective where people with CVI generally believe it’s their vision that is the problem,” Kenny observes. “It’s unjust to make people believe that their vision is a problem — when they can’t participate in society, when society isn’t designed for them, because society never took that into consideration.”

Kenny encourages young people with CVI to own their perceptions of the world, rather than relying on others to tell them what they can see and what they can’t see, what they can do and what they can’t.

“It’s not to say that if you have CVI you aren’t going to need adaptations or additional support. But there are things which can be eliminated, such as saying to somebody they can’t study art because they’ve got a visual impairment. I think it is outrageous that you would even consider telling someone that.” 

She explains that she’s known people with visual impairments who were pressured to study music because of assumed auditory strengths. 

“Well, did you know some of the greatest musicians of this time were actually deaf?” she asks.

Kenny stands alone on a grassy field taking a picture of a foggy hill top

Reevaluating how we look at the world

Kenny has high hopes that her research will elevate the conversation about visual perception and make a positive impact on the CVI community.

Grassy hills that make a diagonal pattern with different shades of yellow and green grass.

“I’m overcautious about how I write my own research…because in some ways, I present my own perspective as quite manageable,” she explains. She recognizes that her visual experience will be different from the next person with CVI, and the next, and the next.

And that’s really the point: Using art to illuminate the varied and valuable perspectives of people with CVI.

“We need to stop and reevaluate how we look at the visual world around us. Art is a very good way of doing that because you can take influences and different perspectives, and everybody looks at it.” 

It’s not unusual for people to use art to express themselves or to gain a deeper understanding of humanity. Moreover, “it’s accepted that everybody looks at a piece of art differently,” Kenny asserts.

“Yet we don’t say, for example, everybody looks at a tree differently. Right? Somehow because it’s art, it holds a sort of validity that it holds a meaning, it holds a purpose. Whereas a tree is just a tree. It can’t be anything else.

“We expect art to be what you want it to be. Really, the whole world is what you want it to be.”

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