Lon Michels’s Extraordinary Vision

Lon Michels’s Extraordinary Vision
Artist Lon Michels with one of his vibrant paintings

It’s a experience almost too terrible to imagine: Eleven years ago, an aggressive optic nerve infection caused artist Lon Michels to go blind in just fifteen minutes.

At the time, he was living in Key West and working on “Freedom,” a visually arresting tribute to Edouard Manet’s famous “The Luncheon on the Grass” from the early 1860s. In a quarter of an hour, he went from a prolific painter of vibrantly patterned works to not being able to see anything around him.

“In fifteen minutes, everything started to get really dark,” he says. “It went from like a very dim light bulb to the point of getting black.”

For the next two years, Michels was repeatedly told he’d never see again, but he wouldn’t accept the prognosis. “As a visual artist, I just couldn’t believe it,” he says.  

Fortunately, a series of treatments and surgeries repaired his optic nerve, and Michels regained his sight. But the experience forever transformed him—and his art.

“It really changed every aspect of my life,” he says. “I was given the gift to look within.”

?Michels, a Marquette native, decided to earn his master’s of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison and he became bolder in his painting. Where he would have used one or two patterns, he started employing four or five or six. And those patterns—used in portraits, landscapes and still life scenes—became more intricate and his colors more intense.

Today, Michels and his partner Todd Olson split their time between Wisconsin and Palm Springs, where they have a gallery. He’s created more than 1,800 paintings and he has no plans to stop.

“I’ve been painting ten hours a day for forty-five years,” he says. “It became almost my first language.”

Indeed, Michels sees and interprets the world differently than most. He’s grateful for his gifts of noticing what others miss and being able to express those things through art.

On October 1, Michels will serve as the keynote speaker at the thirtieth anniversary gala for Combat Blindness International, a Madison-based nonprofit that performs cataract surgeries on people living in poverty in developing countries to restore their sight.

Michels plans to share stories, images of his paintings and insights gleaned from his unique experience losing and regaining his sight.

“I found out we really don’t see with our eyes,” he says. “They’re the receptacle. We really see with our minds. But when I got my eyesight back, I learned we really see with our hearts.”

Learn more about Michels’ art at lonmichelsart.com and Combat Blindness International at combatblindness.org.