From the day she was born, it was clear something was up with Sandy Goldberg.
“One of my eyes was turned so far in that the colored part of it was barely showing,” says Goldberg. “Just by looking at me, you could see that there was something wrong.”
People with two working eyes see the world in 3D. But without vision in her right eye, Goldberg’s world was flat.
As a kid, she would run into parked cars while bike riding. When trying to pour milk into a glass, she would pour it on the table.
In the first grade, doctors patched the eye she could see out of. For an entire year.
Goldberg says “They thought they could bring out some vision in the other eye. But they kind of didn’t realize that there was no vision in the other eye. So I remember that year really well because it was dark.”
It wasn’t all darkness. After the patch, she went to a special eye camp one summer, which she adored. And she began to fall in love. With art.
“I started taking out art books from my local library,” says Goldberg. “Because they were created to be flat, paintings and drawings felt more comfortable than the rest of the world.”
Goldberg lived outside New York City. And she remembers this one day, taking the bus to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A Van Gogh painting stopped her in her tracks.
“It was one of those tall, dark cypress trees. And I didn’t know anything about art. But I remember seeing a couple of paint strokes of the blue-sky background that came over in front of the tree that was supposed to be in the foreground. I just was so excited by that.”
Goldberg was fitted with a contact lens for her seeing eye. Without it, that eye would’ve degenerated, as well. The contact didn’t provide any peripheral vision. But it let her see through a kind of tunnel in front of her left eye. She continued her exploration of art, first as a spectator. And then as a maker.
“I had lots of exhibitions,” she says. “But I did this series called “Bad Eye Paintings” by putting a patch over my seeing eye. I’m almost painting by feeling. And the image was always a chicken that you buy in the supermarket that like, totally vulnerable, feckless, cold thing with no power and a big hole in its body where you stick your hand in. I wanted to paint the most ridiculous thing I could in the most ridiculous way possible,” says Goldberg.
This was the one body of work Goldberg never showed anyone. She says it felt very personal and she didn’t want to have to explain it.
Ultimately, Goldberg’s interest in making art waned. In part, because she didn’t like the ego of it all. But also because she found she loved helping others understand the art already in the world. She became a writer and producer of audio guides.
“Opening people’s eyes in the museum. I just feel like I can guide them through a two-dimensional work of art in a way that feels like, “Welcome to my two-dimensional world.” Like, I had more to give.,” says Goldberg.
And give she has. For over 20 years, to museums all over the world…..The Met in New York, the Guggenheim, the MFA in Boston, Tate Britain, the National Museum of Qatar. Even the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.
Ann Blokland is a senior curator there, and she’s worked with Goldberg on a few audio tours.
“She did an incredible job,” says Blokand. “She picked out these details or certain colors or things that stood out to her. And I thought, ‘Well, you really noticed. You really picked out the right thing.’”
Although Goldberg’s embraced 2D reality in her personal life. Professionally, it’s been another matter. She’s never once told the curators and her collaborators at the museums about her flattened perspective.
“I think if I revealed it, people would see it maybe as a disability,” says Goldberg. “I’m supposed to help others to see when they could mistakenly think I can’t see myself.”
And then the coronavirus hit.
Goldberg says she heard people complain about their Zoom meetings and meeting their friends on screens and how it didn’t feel like real life.
“And I thought, ‘Well, yes, it does. It does for me.’ So I just started thinking maybe this is my moment to kind of come out, as it were, as a 2D person,” says Goldberg.
Ann Blokland of the Van Gogh Museum says she didn’t know about Sandy’s eye condition until now.
“I can understand that she would be a bit hesitant to tell us about it because it’s all about looking. That’s what we do in art. And I’m not sure if Sandy sees more. But I guess she just sees it different.”
It’s the kind of thing that’s been said of Vincent Van Gogh, says Sandy Goldberg. “Finding a completely new way to interpret what’s right in front of you. It’s just a new way of looking.”
For the first time in decades, she’s expressing herself visually on paper again. And she’s telling everybody about her eyesight — which she now considers her own special superpower.
Reporting by Ari Daniel.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.