Australian Paralympian Katie Kelly should have been on top of the world.
She had just won the first-ever gold medal for paratriathlon at the Rio games, and standing on the podium was a highlight of her life.
But her vision was failing.
Kelly’s journey with Usher syndrome, a rare genetic condition that affects both hearing and vision, was beginning to take a toll.
So when she was asked to be part of Last Seen, a world-first project where artists bring visual memories of the sight-impaired to life, it was a moment tinged with sadness.
“Winning a gold medal was one of the big highlights of my life – it was an incredible day on Copacabana Beach with all my friends and family,” Kelly told AAP.
“But increasingly, my eyesight was getting worse. It’s quite difficult to swim when you don’t have any markers.”
Instead of the moment atop a podium, Kelly’s memory involves a training session at the Merewether Ocean Baths in Newcastle – the largest ocean baths in the southern hemisphere.
“I love Merewether Baths … it feels very spiritual to me. I love the ocean and the seawater – you feel free. For a lot of people with disabilities, you’re not inhibited by water.”
But as her sight began to dim, Kelly knew her love of the ocean was about to change.
“There was this profound moment. I remember standing at sunset and feeling quite emotional.
“I loved that place and the freedom it gives you by being in the water and knowing that that was going to change for me because of circumstances with my eyesight.”
Capturing that moment became the ultimate challenge for artist Tracie Eaton.
“I needed to try and get inside her head … to try and get a sense of what she must have been feeling at that time,” the Gold Coast-based artist said.
“It would have been a very bittersweet moment, I felt, but I also wanted to showcase that there was a future there.
“I wanted the piece not to feel sad or like her life had been destroyed – but quite the opposite.”
The artwork has been created not just to see, but to experience through touch using varying textures.
Each section of the painting has a different texture – the sky feels distinct from the side of the pool or the starting blocks.
“Even the water has a different texture because I wanted people, whether visually impaired or not, to enjoy the piece,” Eaton said.
The final composition is on display as part of the 2023 Last Seen exhibition, supporting the Queensland Eye Institute Foundation.
In the only known project of its kind in the world, their work will form an art exhibition and performance where visitors can immerse themselves in the visual art and the sounds and music composed to bring the scenes to life.
“The stories are powerful and very humbling,” the institute’s CEO Mark Radford said of the exhibition works by awarded Australian artists including Robert Brownhall, Rick Everingham, Dylan Jones and Naomi White.
The 2023 Last Seen celebration will run over two weeks in April at the Queensland College of Art’s Grey Street Gallery.