UAB Medicine News


UAB Renews Vision for Renowned Sculptor Frank Fleming

Vision is precious to all of us, but for people who are especially oriented toward visual stimulus, or whose livelihood is dependent upon exceptional visual acuity, healthy vision has perhaps a deeper significance. UAB Medicine patient and Birmingham artist Frank Fleming can attest to that.

If the bronze sculptural fountain at Five Points South were the only major work Fleming had ever produced, he would still be a local celebrity and a key figure in the Birmingham arts scene. That bronze work, titled The Story Teller, has become an iconic Birmingham landmark commonly known as “the fountain.”

Frank Fleming Storyteller sculture

Fleming, however, has crafted thousands of works in clay, ceramic, and bronze for a body of work that spans some 40 years and has earned international acclaim. It goes without saying that his exquisitely detailed art, which features whimsical, Alice in Wonderland-like animal figures and themes of nature and fantasy, requires good vision for up-close work. Nonetheless, that point was recently made “clearer” when Fleming called on doctors at UAB Callahan Eye Hospital to restore his diminished eyesight.

Fleming was diagnosed with cataracts several years ago and at that time it was noted that Fleming probably would require surgery within 3-4 years. During a December 2014 exam, however, it became apparent that the cataracts had very quickly become much worse, Fleming says.

“As my cataracts got worse, I had simply adjusted to living with them,” Fleming says. “But there was concern that the new severity of the cataracts, especially in my left eye, and we knew I would have to do something soon.”

Fleming was referred to Jason Swanner, MD, FACS, at UAB Callahan Eye Hospital. That was a happy set of circumstances for Fleming and Swanner; they are neighbors, and Swanner has collected a few bronze pieces by Fleming.

“No one had to tell me the importance of Frank’s vision,” Swanner says. “I’m a fan of his amazing work. He had pretty severe astigmatism, and very significant brunescent cataracts.”

Brunescent cataracts are a condition in which the nuclear or central portions of the lens have become hardened and brownish in color. In advanced stages, the brown pigmentation can make the lens almost opaque. Although such an advanced condition may present complications for surgery, a successful procedure can improve vision from the category of legally blind to normal. Fleming’s treatment was a success, although it resulted in an odd twist, according to both doctor and patient.

“After the first cataract was removed in January, the vision in my right eye was instantly clearer and brighter than it ever had been,” Fleming says. “I wasn’t sure I was ready to see the world in such brightness. I could close the right eye so that through my left eye, which still had a cataract, everything seemed kind of warm and peaceful.”

Fleming laughs as he relates this story, recognizing the humorous and eccentric quality of such a response to a successful eye surgery. Swanner also sees the peculiar humor in this scenario.

“It’s completely eccentric.” Swanner says. “Only Frank, being the artist he is, would respond that way. I put in a toric (specially shaped) lens to correct his astigmatism, and with the cataract surgery this left him with 20-20 vision that was crystal clear. But he told me right away that he liked the way his art looked through the brown tint of the remaining cataract in his left eye. I immediately thought of the Impressionist artist, Claude Monet, who had cataracts.”

Swanner is alluding to the change in Monet’s work after his vision became impaired during his later years. Regarded as the father of Impressionism and most famous for his masterwork Water Lilies, Monet was treated for cataracts by several ophthalmologists, with varying success. At one point in his ongoing treatment, after being fitted with glasses specialized for cataracts, the artist described the new, brighter colors he saw as “terrifying.”

Fleming recalls that he remained somewhat concerned about how he would see colors if the procedure to treat the other cataract was as successful as the first. He waited a few weeks before having the left eye treated. Now he admits that he shouldn’t have worried.

“After I had the left eye treated, my eyes adjusted,” Fleming says. “The brightness sort of calmed down. It was amazing; it did not destroy my interpretations of colors. It was an unbelievable change for the better.”

“It does sound dramatic,” Swanner says. “But it’s important for people suffering from cataracts to know that the treatment is a very common, very safe procedure. It usually takes less than 10 minutes to complete. Ophthalmologists in the state, most of whom receive training at Callahan Eye Hospital, establish practices in communities all over Alabama where they perform this procedure every day.”

Fleming is pleased with both his restored view of the world and his close view of the work he is currently doing.

“I am thrilled with the results of the procedure Dr. Swanner performed,” he says. “Before that I had about five or six different pair of glasses I swapped back and forth while working with the bronze sculptures. Now I can see every detail without all that trouble. But you know I’m a nature lover and a gardener, too. I was watching blue jays this morning, and I am probably not quite half a football field away but I can see the blue feathers and the white feathers. I grow some spectacular lilies, and at about 100 feet away I can see each petal.”

Click here to learn more about cataract extraction at UAB Callahan Eye Hospital.


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