HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — The last time lifelong artist Sandra Hinton remembers seeing colors on her paint palette was more than a decade ago.

At her Hattiesburg home, Sandra's living room is decorated with paintings, sculptures and antique furniture. One painting, her husband Cecil Hinton tells her, is on the wall facing the couch. It depicts a banana plant, with smooth green leaves against a vermillion backdrop — one of the last paintings Sandra created before she lost the ability to see colors.

"Even knowing colors, in your mind, slips away," Sandra said.

Her loss of sight was so gradual, Sandra said, it's hard to remember the exact year she stopped seeing colors.

"But I painted after that," Sandra said. "I went with it. When you're an artist, you can't help yourself. You just do it. You just have to."

Sandra was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) — a rare genetic disorder that affects one in 4,000 worldwide that can result in gradual vision loss and blindness. RP is a slow deterioration of the retina, Sandra said.

"You lose sight in progressive degrees, so much that it can go down to a pinpoint," Sandra said. "It's different for each individual. I can see brightness against darkness. I have not lost the sense of light."

Although blind, Sandra continues to create by taking sculpture classes through the South Mississippi Art Association, taught by nationally recognized sculptor and Columbia, Mississippi, native Ben Watts.

Every Monday Cecil drives Sandra to the McNair Building near Hattiesburg High School for her two-hour sculpture class. Sandra knows she's almost there from the curve in the road and the sharp left turn into the parking lot. In a small room with eight to 10 other artists, Sandra leans over her latest creation from a powerful image in Ephesians 5:26.

"I had this idea to create a life-size sculpture of the woman who washes Jesus's feet — so she is the foot washer," Sandra said. "She has been in the works for a year. I've (done) a lot of research, and when you make any kind of artwork, you have to own your work."

Using different techniques and materials, Sandra continues to work on "The Foot Washer." She and Watts collaborate on weekly challenges such as securing the base, keeping the clay wet enough to work with week after week and finding the right materials to make Sandra's piece a reality.

Sandra tried a pottery class before moving on to sculpture and was not sure if she would do well. She said it is easy to choose not to continue creating because it was hard.

"But then this sculpture class opened up, and I never imagined, I never imagined I would move into that," Hinton said. "When I attended the very first class, there was no way I could even follow what the teacher was saying. Not at all."

Sandra said the minute she began to do something with her hands, she was able to grasp the artform.

"There was no reason not to try because I'm not impressing anybody," Sandra said. "It comes after you have given everything up. Something else opens up. When I gave up me painting with color for myself, then this other option opened."

The painting of the banana leaves reminds Sandra of the struggle she had letting go of being able to paint. Two other paintings of her backyard fauna hang in her husband's office. The joy she receives now from art is what others tell her they see in her paintings and sculptures.

"I didn't enjoy — I have to enjoy what the person is going to see from the finished project," Sandra said. "I'm not there when I'm creating because that's gone. I have done a few sculptures now, and I can pass my fingers through it."

Watts even purchased a sculpture — an elephant standing on a ball — right out of the shop after Sandra finished it. Watts said the elephant she created was an impossible feat due to its structure.

"This right here is something we don't do," Watts said. "I figured it out for her. The particular type of clay is self-hardening, and it cracks. I just had to figure it out, but normally we don't do anything with an arm flying off because it will break off."

He said helping Sandra create her work is not a challenge, but he helps repair her sculpture around the edges where cracks form.

"I always ask her if she can see it," Watts said. "Then I'll apologize, and I have to remember, she can't see what I can see. Once I put her hands on there, she knows what it is."

Watts said the only challenging part of working with Sandra is keeping her from wanting to do bigger and better pieces.

"I'll think, 'Oh lord, here we go again,'" Watts said. "I'll tell her, 'You can't do that,' and she says, 'Yes I can.' The problem is trying to keep her down on the farm, but she doesn't listen."

Watts and Sandra both showcase her creations in their homes. Her living room now houses two of her sculptures that she can touch and show to others who visit. As she continues to create sculptures, Sandra said she feels that other people will receive the benefit of everything she creates.

"It's like reflective light," she said.

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Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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