How One Craftsman Uses Woodworking to Depict His Vision Loss

round, wooden latticed bowl with light and dark wood

Alan Shrebtienko not only has an artistic vision, he’s starting to use his art to reflect his vision loss – sharing what he is, and what he isn’t, able to see with those who might never otherwise understand. 

National Crafting Month in March is a great time to showcase Alan’s work, which tied him for first place in the craft category of the 2020 APH InSights Art competition for artists who are blind or visually impaired. According to the description of his wood bowl called “Vision Study #1,” this is Alan’s first artistic exploration of his vision loss, which was brought on by a life-threatening case of pancreatitis in 2016. Although he’s legally blind, he has some vision, which he describes as putting on a blindfold and cutting a little peep hole over each eye. He can’t look at someone’s entire face at once, but he can put the pieces together by looking at their eyes, their nose, their mouth and other features one at a time. 

Creation of VisionStudy #1

Vision Study #1 depicts the way he assembles the work: a bowl made of maple and walnut wood, measuring 18 inches in diameter and 4 inches high. Alan created the bowl from hundreds of hand-cut pieces of wood, roughly the size of small sugar cubes, stacked in concentric circles one on top of the other, with a space in between each cube and those in the row beneath them.  

For sighted people who can see the entire bowl, it may not be obvious at first, but the darker wood forms a floral pattern. The reason it may take longer to see the pattern emerge is because Alan purposely made the floral pattern represent what he sees when looking at an image like that. 

“I just don’t see everything – I can only see something I am looking straight at,” he explains. “I wanted to make a representation because I can do certain things people wouldn’t think I can, like play corn hole, because all I have to look at is that hole. There are so many types of low vision, I wanted to try to express that and what my vision is like.” 

In other words, the bowl reflects that Alan is only able to see sections of the floral pattern at a time, which is what a sighted person sees: a fragmented pattern. 

Relearning a Lifelong Craft

The form of woodworking Alan uses is called woodturning, which carves a block of wood into an object like a bowl using a motor-driven lathe, that spins the wood at high speed. At the same time, he uses cutting tools, such as a chisel, to make the shape he wants to make, which is how he carved out this design. 

Having been interested in woodworking since middle school shop class in the 1980s, Alan – who is now 51 years old, and a retired high school physics teacher – says he’s been turning wood basically his entire life. He was very experienced with using the sharp blade of a lathe when he lost his vision, but getting up the courage to use one with limited vision took time and patience.  

“At first, I was really scared of it,” he says. “I’d spend hours with the chisel and a little piece of wood in my lathe not even running, holding the tip of the chisel trying to figure out how I was going to present his chisel to the wood. I knew what needed to be done, but I had to learn a new way to do it, which took me a really long time.” 

Inspiration for the Design 

Part of the design of Vision Study #1 was inspired by the need to change the way Alan works with the lathe, because creating a solid 10-inch bowl requires a block of wood that weighs about 30 pounds. 

“To put that on the lathe and spin it if you can’t see is fairly dangerous for me,” he explains. “That’s what got me into the segmenting because I put a little faceplate up there that had almost no weight, and then these little pieces go on one at a time. So, I was able to build it up but take some of the risk out of it.” 

He admits it’s taken him years to learn to make a piece like this, which now takes a week or two to create. In addition to woodturning, he also makes resin fountain pens in a variety of designs, which he sells on Etsy to help his wife with the household finances.  

APH InSights Art Competition

Alan first learned about the APH InSights Art competition through a Facebook group for people who are visually impaired, and he plans to enter again. 

“I hope something like this helps some people with vision loss understand what they are capable of doing, because there were days that I didn’t,” he admits. “But I learned to start using my hands to find a way to turn wood and it’s just a matter of doing it over and over and memorizing the process.” 

To learn more about Alan’s work, find him on Instagram at @onawhim_woodworks.