Community

A rare disease robbed a Lisbon painter of his eyesight. Now his artistic vision takes more abstract forms

Photorealist artist Travis Allen carves new paths with sculptures, three-dimensional elements

Artist Travis Allen talks about losing his eyesight and being blind as he stands in his kitchen Oct. 23 with hard hats he’s airbrushed and other art he created at his home and studio in Lisbon. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Artist Travis Allen talks about losing his eyesight and being blind as he stands in his kitchen Oct. 23 with hard hats he’s airbrushed and other art he created at his home and studio in Lisbon. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
/

LISBON — A rare autoimmune disorder robbed Travis Allen of his eyesight, but not his artistic vision.

Once specializing in photorealist paintings, Allen, 47, now relies on his hands and muscle memory to create intricate clay-paper sculptures and two-dimensional paintings with three-dimensional elements.

The works sprout from the walls of his immaculate quarters along Lisbon’s East Main Street, where everything in his home and massive, attached workshop are neatly in their place.

They have to be so that he won’t run into things and knock over the tools that make his art spring to life in swirls of orbs shooting through otherworldly scenes, copper coils of hair sproinging out from an abstract face with candy-red lips, and a steampunk skeletal duo that puts the goth into his “American Gothic” interpretation.

He still occasionally runs into doors, knocks over art supplies and drops items he’s working on, sending him to his knees to feel around for them. While that’s all frustrating, real panic set in the time he couldn’t find his little deaf dog.

“When he sleeps hard, you can’t wake him up,” Allen said. Eventually, a sharp yelp let him know that he had stepped on the pooch.

“We’re quite the combination,” he said. “I never realized how difficult it would probably be for a blind guy to try to find his deaf dog.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

Surrounded by art in his home, Allen plans to open a gallery next spring in space across from his living quarters.

For now, his open-concept kitchen/living room is his own gallery. He has created nearly every piece jutting out from the walls. Most were made after he lost his vision to cone dystrophy, which kills cells in the retina that help him distinguish colors and fine details.

“I can’t tell between whites and yellows and light blues, and then reds and greens and browns and black — they’re all the same to me. So everything’s kind of in a gray tone,” he said. “I can’t see you right now. I can’t see anything.”

His doctor at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics told him that only about 100 cases similar to his have been documented or lectured about. It has no cure.

DOWNWARD SPIRAL

Allen’s eyesight began a gradual decline in his mid-30s, which he first noticed in his right eye while watching TV. He’d had laser eye surgery about 10 years before, when he turned his attention from painting on canvases to the more lucrative medium of airbrushing designs on motorcycles. The clear-coating that he applied to weatherproof that work was ruining his prescription glasses, so he had laser surgery to restore his 20/20 vision.

Worried that his eyes might be reverting, he had the laser procedure done again, to no avail. His eyesight didn’t improve. But something else didn’t look quite right to his surgeon, who recommended an MRI.

One test led to another, which sent Allen from doctor to doctor. He’s now being treated by UI retinal and genetics specialists.

As all this was happening, he was able to stay in his union iron worker job for five more years, thanks to co-workers who were more like family.

“They took real good care of me and watched out for me,” he said. “I needed my job to save as much money as I could, and build up as much retirement as I could.”

And then the day he had been dreading came June 1, 2015, when he was laid off.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“I became a liability, I guess. But you know, it is what it is,” he said. “I was angry about it for a while. And really, I think there’s a reason you lose your vision, and maybe it’s this,” he said, gesturing to this new body of artwork that has taken on a more abstract, yet amazingly intricate, colorful form.

But before carving a new artistic path, he sank into a hard depression that lasted nearly three years.

“When it first started, I had no hope,” he said. “I just didn’t care anymore.”

He painted his last motorcycle in 2011, when he could no longer see the fine details.

He misses seeing the sky and clouds, sunsets, mountains, sporting events and a beautiful woman.

“I just miss being able to see that kind of stuff,” he said.

FINDING HOPE

Research with stem cell therapy has given him new hope that a breakthrough will happen in his lifetime — maybe even in the next decade — so he had his own stem cells harvested from a small spot on his back. In the future, Allen said treatments could allow those stem cells to create new cone cells to replace the dying ones in his retinas.

“You have some hope, and that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I’m real lucky. People need to understand how lucky we are to have the University of Iowa close to us. I don’t have to drive, pay hotel rooms and go out of state to get good health care.”

With renewed spirit, almost two years ago he decided to see where he could take his art.

“I went into the paint booth a couple of times, trying to try to paint again,” he said. “But I still found myself trying to do what I used to do. And I’d get just frustrated because I know my talent level was there and the ability was there, but my vision just wasn’t allowing me to do that fine detail stuff.

“So I finally got to the point where I said, man, I have to have paint on me again, because I’m usually covered in paint — paint on my hands and everything. That’s just how I’ve been since the ’90s, and I missed it. I missed the smell, I missed creating, I missed moving people and I missed all of it. So I just went in and started throwing paint at a canvas and said, ‘I’m just going to see what happens and let my mind wander.’ I spent so much time with bikes, because they made me money, that I didn’t spend as much time as I really wanted to, to create some visions I had in my head on canvas.”

BRUSHES WITH FAME

Allen changed directions earlier in his career after discovering he could spend 40 hours on a canvas and be lucky to sell it for $200. But by investing just four to 14 hours custom-painting a motorcycle, he could make $3,000 to $5,000.

“So the obvious choice of what I was focusing on, for me, was bikes,” he said. “I enjoyed them — I rode bikes myself. I enjoyed that whole culture, and I just always took a lot of pride in seeing my bikes out or getting calls back about guys winning shows and things like that. That’s what really motivated me or made me happy. ... That kind of strokes your ego and makes you happy and proud.”

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

He also had been airbrushing the back of bar stools and hard hats while managing a bar in Mount Vernon. A big Steelers and Hawkeye football fan, he would see hard hats sporting just logos at games. He decided to put some art to those, airbrushing faces and designs on them. They became such a hit that he was sending them all over the country.

“I’d get $100 out of them and laugh, because I spent more time on a hard hat than a Harley street bike,” he said. “It wasn’t a matter of the money, it was a way for me to hone my skills. Plus, I just really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the stories from people going to the games and having people chase them down and say, ‘Where’d you get it?’ ”

Same thing happened when he’d wear one of his creations to a game. Soon, he was handing out business cards and getting custom orders. They’ve wound up on the head of Notre Dame fan Regis Philbin, who brought it onto his talk show with Kathie Lee Gifford and spoke about Allen. The artist later spotted it on a shelf in Philbin’s office during an interview on “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”

Allen also has painted hard hats for Brian Ferentz from the Iowa Hawkeye coaching staff, radio personality Chick McGee from “The Bob & Tom Show,” and former NFL greats Terry Bradshaw and Howie Long.

Allen used to call himself Mad Hatter, but now, by spelling his first name backward, his business has become Sivart Art Studio. He loved discovering that A-R-T has been part of his name all along.

A NEW APPRECIATION

These days, family, friends and technology are key factors fueling his life and his art. He could attend a course to learn how to navigate the world without sight, but he already lives on his own and has voice-activated technology that reads aloud his phone messages and emails.

He lives off his savings, disability payments and a small trust fund set up after he was hit by a dump truck in Cedar Rapids in his youth. He still bears scars from double cranial surgery and has a plate in his head, but doesn’t know if that injury plays into his current condition.

Family and friends not only supply moral support, they pitch in with everything from helping him place the stencils that allow him to make circles on canvas to telling him in person or over FaceTime where he needs to apply more paint, or just let him know what color he has in his hand.

He’s also learning Braille so he can create labels for paint containers. He had been writing color names in big, bold letters, but that became moot when he could no longer see them.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

He’s picked up his airbrush again, using his left hand as a guide so he can feel where the paint is being applied. And because he’s spent his whole life in the trades and working with tools, he still uses some power tools, like a belt sander, miter saw and router for his projects.

His confidence got a big boost in 2018 when he entered pieces in the Lincoln Highway Arts Festival in his nearby hometown of Mount Vernon.

“I ended up selling $1,500 worth of artwork,” he said. “So I’m like, ‘Huh, I think maybe I still have a little bit of something.’ It made me feel good enough and gave me the confidence to go, ‘Hey, you can still do this. People are still appreciating your work, not just because you’re blind or going blind, just that they really appreciate the work.’”

His life-size Medusa sculpture, covered in 61 slithering snakes and holding a bow and arrow, snapped up top honors in the recent “Nightmare on 7th Avenue” contest at DKW Gallery & Studio in Marion.

Deb Weiser, artist and DKW Gallery owner, sees “everything” in Allen.

“I see passion, ingenuity, drive, imagination and love for art,” she said. “He humbles me, he makes me strive to do better. To push the boundaries and always see with more than just my eyes, but to see with my heart. He is a wonderful talent and friend. I am forever grateful that he came into our lives.”

His prizewinning Medusa creation, spanning more than 3-feet-by-3-feet top to bottom and side to side, lived in his head for two or three years before he started bringing it to life in sculpture. He spent a year working on it on and off, then concentrated on his multicolored creation for two months leading up to the Halloween-season exhibition.

Such attention to detail hearkens to the need for perfection that drove him toward photorealist paintings, emerging from a lifelong fascination with art. It began in childhood, when he started doodling cartoons. He took some art classes in high school, then spent a year studying commercial art, but graphic design wasn’t his thing. Painting was.

He’s now working in more abstract realms that often incorporate his love of science fiction imagery — and eyeballs, not because of his condition, but because eyes represent windows between worlds, and their shape is easier for him to manipulate.

He’s also learning not to sweat the small stuff.

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW ADVERTISEMENT

“It’s funny. When I make a mistake, it actually turns into something better, and it works out in the end,” he said. “So it just took me a while to start accepting the change in this and realizing that I could still maybe do more.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.