When Selris James painted a month ago, he held his face so close to the canvas his nose nearly smeared the paint.
But when he went to paint his latest piece, James, who was born blind and deaf in his home country of Trinidad and Tobago, was able to sit a comfortable distance from the canvas.
Just two weeks before, Dr. Guillermo Amescua, a cornea specialist at the University of Miami’s Bascom Palmer Eye Institute, removed the cataract in James’ right eye, which he said had become ingrained behind the pupil.
The pro bono surgery, plus a pair of tortoiseshell and gold glasses, gave James, 41, sight.
“He was really excited when he realized it was working,” said Amescua.
James’ scarred retinas mean his sight will never be perfect, but for a legally blind man, sight in both eyes is a miracle.
An artist since childhood, James uses acrylics to paint colorful bursts of flowers, landscapes and scenes from his travels. He painted the American Airways plane he flew to Miami on, the Metrorail he rode, the giraffe he fed at Zoo Miami and a photo of himself, posing on the giant “U” at the UM Coral Gables campus.
His mother, Gwenie Gomez-James, contracted rubella, a contagious disease caused by a virus, during her pregnancy. Her son was born with congenital rubella syndrome.
Doctors soon confirmed that her son was doubly impaired. Eye surgery helped his left eye regain some sight, but after that, “he drew everything he wanted to say,” Gomez-James said.
When he was 3, James started watching “Sesame Street,” his face 3 inches from the television screen. His mother gave him a pencil and paper and he started scribbling, long, loopy lines that eventually turned into the alphabet.
By 7, James was communicating with cartoon strip-like art. He asked why he couldn’t hear or see, and drew cartoons of himself with hearing aids and glasses.
Schooling presented a problem. The Trinidad School for the Blind rejected him because he was deaf, and a school for the deaf didn’t want him because he was blind.
Gomez-James took her son to a parish priest, Father Eugene Delahunt, who introduced the pair to the local Rotary Club. From there, James was sent to Beth Harry, a special education teacher at the Immortelle Children’s Centre in Trinidad, a school for children with disabilities.
Harry said James was the only deaf and only visually impaired student, which led to some difficulties.
“We didn’t actually know what we were doing,” she said. “We did the best we could.”
He remained at the Immortelle until he was 21, where he fell deeper in love with computers. He’s adept at art he creates using Photoshop. Prints of his computer-generated self-portraits and images of flowers were among those included at his art sale in early October, an idea developed by his sign language instructor at UM, Kirsten Schwarz Olmedo.
The communication therapy at UM, as well as the surgery at Bascom Palmer, are possible because of Harry, now a professor at UM. “It was a great blessing in my life when I met Selris,” said Harry, who met him when he was 7.
Olmedo’s goal is for James to return to Trinidad with the ability to communicate and to make a living as an artist.
“I want to give him the gift of language,” she said.
James is learning to read, to use sign language and to speak through an iPad app, where he arranges images the app translates into a sentence. His family charts his progress from his Facebook page — The Selris James Fund.
Harry recently made a book from a collection of James’ drawings. She self-published “Deaf, blind, and smart as a whip” on Shutterfly and wants to find an international publisher to take the book mainstream.
“We think it’s a universal story,” she said.