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An Artist's Vision: Shiley Eye Center
Helps Local Artist Return to his Canvas

May 17, 2011

By Kristin Luciani

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Photo of DrEricson
Local artist Jerome Walker in his studio

Jerome Walker was born an artist. From the moment he first learned to hold a pencil, Walker began drawing on everything and with everything he could find—including on walls with his sister’s lipstick. Despite being visually impaired, he built a career as a painter, showing in galleries in Chicago, London and Paris. Most recently, one of his paintings was recognized by the Regional Juried Show at the San Diego Art Institute. Displayed next to the painting was the artist’s dedication: “This painting is gratefully dedicated to Donald and Darlene Shiley and Dr. Weinreb and Dr. Schanzlin of the Shiley Eye Center in La Jolla, without whose help this painting (and possibly the artist himself) might never have seen the light of day.”

Walker was nearly blind from glaucoma when he first came to UC San Diego’s Shiley Eye Center, where he has been a patient for more than 10 years. Named for the late Donald Shiley and his wife Darlene whose generosity played a key role in the advancement of UC San Diego’s ophthalmology department, the Shiley Eye Center provides comprehensive eye care at one location—from basic eye exams to the most advanced diagnostic tests and sophisticated surgery. In the 25 years that the Shiley Eye Center has been operating, Walker is the first and only patient to thank the Shileys for their philanthropy. In a letter addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Shiley, Walker expressed his gratitude for their visionary support which has enabled him to continue his passion for art.

Walker’s impaired vision dates back to his youth. Due to a childhood illness, Walker was blind by the age of nine and underwent extensive treatment that left him with scar tissue over both corneas, severely limiting his vision for the next 37 years.

Photo of DrEricson
"Julie's Garden" by Jerome Walker

“All the years I was growing up, I never saw a blackboard in school,” recalls Walker, who grew up in a small town in Illinois. “But I was too shy to tell the teachers. At that age, you don’t want to draw attention to yourself.”

Walker continued: “So I would go to the old fashioned hand crank pencil sharpener mounted next to the blackboard, sharpen my pencil slowly and memorize the questions on the board. I would do this over and over until I finished the test. I must have had the shortest, sharpest pencils at Horace Mann School.”

 Upon graduating from high school, Walker found himself bored with small town life and tried to join the Navy. He managed to fake his way through the required eye exam and was sent to training. “But when I got to the Great Lakes Naval Training Center,” said Walker, “they were horrified at how bad my sight was, declared me 4F and sent me home with an Honorable Discharge.” 
Shortly after that experience, Walker’s mother learned of a Rehabilitation Scholarship for the Visually Impaired, and with help from the scholarship Walker applied and was accepted to the Art Institute of Chicago. As Walker himself put it, “This was akin to a nearly deaf person going to music school!”

Although Walker had always drawn and painted, it was at this point that he began to flourish as an artist and develop his unique abstract style. His work was shown in galleries both in the U.S. and Europe, winning several awards. In 1965, he moved to London with his first wife and painted there for a couple of years. Upon returning to the U.S., the couple divorced and Walker was given custody of his three children. He raised them on his own for the next fourteen years, until he met his present wife, Julie, an artist and photographer representative. Walker worked as a freelance illustrator, an art teacher and later as a senior art director at the Leo Burnett Advertising Agency, where he created television commercials for the Keebler Elves, Tony the Tiger and Ronald McDonald, among others.  

Up until this point, Walker had lived his life with significantly impaired vision. Then in 1982 he had his first cornea transplant at the University of Chicago. For the first time in his life—at the age of 45—Walker was able to drive a car.

In 2000, Walker and his wife Julie moved to San Diego. But unfortunately, shortly after arriving everything went wrong with his eyes: glaucoma, cataracts and the failure of the cornea that had been replaced in Chicago. Walker’s doctor in Chicago referred him to the Shiley Eye Center, and he has been a patient there ever since. After undergoing surgery for glaucoma, cataracts and cornea transplants, Walker was able to paint again and began showing his work in local competitions. One of his paintings was chosen for inclusion in the international book “Art Buzz, 2010.”

“If it wasn’t for the kindness and generosity of the Shileys and the care of the doctors at the Shiley Eye Center, my life might have turned out quite differently,” said Walker. “I still have some vision problems, but I’m happily at work on a new series of paintings and am looking forward to the future.”

For more information about the Shiley Eye Center and how private support can make a difference, visit www.shileyeye.ucsd.edu


Media Contact: Kristin Luciani, 858-822-3353, or kluciani@ucsd.edu

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