Sculptor's work offers others a glimpse into what she's seeing

In early art classes at Parkland College, Sheila Schneider almost gave up her dream of becoming an artist because her visual disability was so limiting.

Schneider sees the world differently from most people because her eyesight is narrowed to tunnel vision by an inherited and irreversible disorder called retinitis pigmentosa. But her Parkland teachers didn't let her quit. Instead, Schneider said, they encouraged her and adjusted their perspectives to her talents.

In Joan Stolz's Parkland class, drawing figures from live models, Schneider found she couldn't keep one eye on the drawing and one on the model to get it correctly down on paper.

"It took me forever," Schneider said. She said Stolz wisely told her to draw exactly what she saw.

"I drew chopped-up bodies," Schneider said. "I did it in the sections I saw, and that gave me a unique perspective."

That drawing went into the portfolio she submitted to the University of Illinois for admission to its competitive fine arts program, where she's been a student since last fall.

Schneider was 27 when she found out RP would gradually shrink her field of vision. She continued working for years, eventually using computer tools to enhance her failing eyesight.

In 2004, by then legally blind and facing changes at her Chicago workplace, Schneider decided to make a long-time dream come true and applied for admission to Parkland. A Champaign native, she moved back to her childhood home to work on a degree and to explore her childhood interest in fine arts before her eyesight deteriorated even more.

"When I first found out about the RP, my attitude was not positive, but eventually I thought, 'There has to be a reason for me to do this,' " Schneider said. "I think my loss of vision was a signal for me to get my degree, and I'm getting it now because if my eyesight goes completely, I'll still be able to work."

She intended to focus on general education classes at Parkland and add in an art class or two to see how well she could work. "I took a drawing class with Melinda McIntosh," Schneider said. "It was my first class and her first class. I was afraid I couldn't draw, but she was very encouraging. Without her, I would have stopped."

When she took her first sculpture class. Schneider realized she'd found her medium.

"At first I thought maybe ceramics, but that sculpture class changed everything," she said. "You can use so many different materials, rough or smooth or both. I love the feel of stone, the tactileness of it.

"A lot of my art is about touching because that's what I do."

Schneider has no peripheral or night vision, so she has a helper. Heather, a blond seeing eye dog, helped her navigate Parkland halls and now is a familiar sight at UI art classes.

Schneider said Parkland developed her coping skills and her art. In one class, the teacher gave students an 18-by-24-inch piece of paper to work on.

"My picture was small and right in the middle," Schneider said. "Eventually I got to the point where I could do large things."

In another class, a teacher asked students to create a chair. Schneider's fake fur-covered creation was modeled after Heather, complete with harness.

"A chair is used for support," Schneider said. "She's my support. She goes everywhere with me.

"Everyone wanted to make sure I had no problems. The only real accommodation was in a class where we were to make projects in 3-D with wood. The instructor did the cutting for me."

For safety reasons, she still won't use a drill press or power saws, and she's had some help at the UI when that's required.

Schneider said Parkland instructors help art students put together portfolios of their best work, and that's what she submitted to the UI when she applied last year.

"I didn't tell them I'm legally blind because I wanted my work to be accepted on its own merit," Schneider said. "I was thrilled to be accepted. After I was, I talked to rehabilitation services and they were very helpful."

Bryan McMurray, vision and hearing coordinator for the UI educational services office, said by policy, incoming students with disabilities are accepted like everyone else, on their ability to meet academic entrance requirements.

"Disabilities do not factor into admissions," said McMurray, who's also legally blind. "At that admission point the student can choose to disclose the impairment."

Counselors work with student seeking help to make their time on campus a success. With Schneider, McMurray said, it was "an interesting process.

"I went to a meeting with her, and she came with her guide dog," he said. I would have loved to see the faces of faculty members. I mean it's one thing if you're in music, but this is art!"

He said students come to his office to get training in computer-based assistance, both software and hardware, but his goal is to get adaptive systems installed all over campus in labs where students with disabilities need to use then.

"If they document an impairment, we're going to work with them to do anything we can do that really works for them," McMurray said.

Schneider said she makes use of visual aides in the Applied Health Sciences library, and she has converted text books to Word documents so she can read them.

McMurray, a UI graduate, said the number of students with disabilities on campus has increased dramatically since he was a student.

"Students are functioning better now through high school," he said. "When I was a student here, there were about 200 students registered with disabilities. Now we have more than 1,000. We have one of the biggest wheelchair populations in the country."

Technology has helped, he said.

"It's better and you can do things quicker," McMurray said. "The UI has always been a leader in the country helping students with disabilities."

Schneider's focus now is to finish work on her degree. Eventually, she'd like to have her own studio, earning a living creating sculptures. No one, including her doctors, knows if her vision will continue to deteriorate.

"It has deteriorated some since I was 27," said Schneider, who's now 49. "But if it goes, I can still work. I can still use the chisels, the files, a small hand saw. I still have issues with perspective, but with sculpture, you can feel what you're working on.

"The sculptures keep me sane," she said. "I love music. I don't play any more, but I listen for hours and work with stone and wood. It puts me in a zone."

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