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Canada Dec. 3, 2017

Blind faith: sightless artist inspires hope

By Michael Swan

Blind sculptor Anne-Marie Landry with some of her Nativity creations. (Michael Swan / CCN)

TORONTO (CCN)—In Sister Helen Kluke’s pottery studio, “there are no mistakes, only new creations.” Sister Kluke has cast those words in clay, fired them, glazed them in a rainbow of bright colours, and mounted them above her shelves full of books, tools, paints and glazes as a constant reminder to her students while they work.

For the most part, her student potters assume her words apply to making things out of clay. In the case of one student, blind sculptor Anne-Marie Landry, the new creation is her own life lived more fully, enjoyed more deeply and loved as it should be.

Landry is making a manger, which she also calls a church, and filling it with the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, an angel, a cross, and all kinds of animals – including a big-eared polar bear with her cubs. In late October she had two Christmas mangers on the go, hoping to place at least one in her parish church, St. Stanislaus in downtown Toronto.

It never occurred to Landry that a blind person couldn’t be a potter.

“I had a good feeling about it,” she said. “Because it was tactile.”

Her hands are her guides in the world, the way sighted people rely on their eyes.

Landry had glaucoma at the age of two and has been almost completely blind since she was seven. Only the colour red persisted into her teenaged years. At 41, she remembers red, but not much else.

For nearly 20 years, she was trapped in an abusive relationship with her brother, who cashed the disability cheques that came to her and their blind mother. As Landry’s mother succumbed to her own dementia and blindness, the young woman was virtually a prisoner in the family apartment, dependent on a brother who was violent and unpredictable. Years of isolation and untreated depression combined with developmental delays and blindness to plunk Landry down in the “dual diagnosis” category whenever she visits doctors or social workers.

When the city found out what was going on in Landry’s home, case managers, with some help from police (outstanding warrants and a gun in the home), managed to get the brother away from her. Landry was at last able to care for her mother by placing her in a long-term care home. From there, Landry found refuge in St. Felix House, a transitional home for women in the former convent of the Felician-Franciscan Sisters. Across the parking lot from the gracious old convent, Landry found a welcoming parish in the historically Polish St. Stan’s. After a two-year transition, she now has a home in Vita Community Living, a circle of friends at St. Stanislaus, regular activity with the Sisters of St. Joseph arts program at The Mustard Seed, and weekly afternoons in The Studio on the Hill with Sister Kluke, who is also a St. Joseph sister.

“Dual diagnosis” doesn’t begin to capture the unique complexity of Landry’s life. Whatever her misfortunes, however, Landry never looks back in anger or self-pity.

“I have faith. I always had faith.”

Come Christmas day, Landry will be at a cottage with her godparents, Davina Jalea and Ravi Anandappa, and their family. She will enjoy a glass of wine. Food prepared by chef and restaurateur Anandappa will be a particular delight. And she will be sure to dance – she loves Abba.

It’s a perfect Toronto Catholic Christmas, with Landry embedded in a family that joins her Filipina godmother with her Sri Lankan godfather and Jalea’s nieces and nephews enjoying the Italian cuisine that is Anandappa’s specialty at Antonia’s Bistro (named after St. Anthony of Padua) in Campbellford, Ont. – all thanks to a connection made in the RCIA program of a Polish church.

“Our friendship grew to having her as part of our family,” explained Jalea. “Anne-Marie is an extremely bright woman. She has a lot to offer. She’s very inspiring.”

A former nurse, Jalea has found it easy to see past Landry’s disability and her struggle with depression to find somebody with a capacity for joy and fierce determination.

Dropping Landry off one rainy afternoon at the end of a shopping trip, Jalea was worried about Landry and the walk back to her apartment. She asked Landry if she would be all right.

“You can’t be blind and be a wimp,” Landry told her.

Several pieces of Landry’s pottery are on display in the decor of Antonia’s Bistro. Anandappa also displays work by a professional potter in his restaurant. When patrons learn that some of the pottery was made by a blind, disabled woman they give Anandappa a doubtful stare.

“Even me, with eyesight, I don’t think I could do as well,” said Anandappa.

Jalea is very fond of a cup Landry made for her, which is on display in the restaurant.

“I showed them (restaurant customers) that cup and said, ‘By the way, she’s blind. Like, totally blind.’ They were blown away.”

The relationship is no exercise in dutiful Christian pity.

“I’m not there to look after her. I may offer some help to her, but she is more of a help to people – more than they realize,” Jalea said. “Like her commitment and her faith. She just has an incredible faith.”

Over the last decade of extricating Landry from her isolation, Family Services of Toronto social worker Ornella Cavasin has come to see how faith was not incidental to her client’s life.

“We forget that importance,” said Cavasin. “That’s a part of people’s basic needs.”

Cavasin encouraged the opportunities which emerged for Landry to explore and grow in her faith. She was often led by Landry, who was actively looking for a church, looking for community and seeking ways to express herself.

“Sister Helen was just so open,” Cavasin said.

The idea of a blind potter was never ridiculous for Sister Kluke. Landry is just the kind of student she has built her pottery ministry around, knowing that making things from clay isn’t just a technical challenge or an interesting art discipline.

“It’s healing,” said Sister Kluke. “It became a language for me. It becomes something that opens up possibilities.”

From the street, the Studio on the Hill looks like a business – another storefront jammed between a couple of restaurants. Sister Kluke’s secret is that her storefront is actually a ministry open to anyone willing to discover themselves in a creative process. She runs prayer and play workshops for young people. Her students include teachers and professionals, widows, single mothers on welfare, children from refugee families.

“It’s a place where people just want to be,” she said.

Which makes it the perfect place for Landry’s Advent dream of a manger and church that gathers all God’s creation from polar bears to donkeys.

As she glazes her manger red, she explains that red is the right colour because it’s the blood of Christ.

There could be no better metaphor for faith than shaping what you can’t see from raw material extracted from the earth. Her faith is what it’s all about for Landry.

“It’s my faith. I believe. It’s important because it’s always been there.”

The Catholic Register