Art is there for everyone to enjoy, cherish or dismiss as they see fit. Moreover, great works of art have been appreciated by so many people all over the world, who find something to love in everything from the freeform shapes of Henry Moore’s sculptures to the despair and emptiness in Francis Bacon’s so-called “Black Triptychs.”
But imagine being an art lover and never again laying eyes on a masterpiece; never being able to admire pieces in a gallery or to witness the unveiling of a sculpture. That was the situation John Bramblitt found himself in when he lost his vision in 2001, the year of his 30th birthday. Despite his blindness, though, Bramblitt started to paint vibrant, textured canvases with vivid hues as bright as those of heat maps.
Bramblitt’s eye troubles began after he developed epilepsy at just 11 years old. Indeed, the severity of his condition meant that his seizures were affecting his sight, even though this is a relatively rare occurrence. His vision became progressively poorer until, finally, it failed altogether.
At that point, moreover, depression set in. Bramblitt had envisaged taking up a career as a creative writing tutor and had previously graduated cum laude with an English degree from the University of North Texas in Denton. But that work goal, he felt, was taken away when he lost his sight. As a result, Bramblitt became – somewhat understandably – forlorn and felt estranged from his loved ones.
It may not have helped Bramblitt’s detachment that no two epilepsy sufferers are alike. Epilepsy is a brain condition that causes unpredictable and repeated seizures; and while it can be brought on by a prior condition or a traumatic head wound, for example, its cause is something of a mystery in most cases.
Hence, nobody knows the precise reason for Bramblitt’s loss of sight. He had been experiencing seizures since he was two years old, and – though it has not been medically proven – Bramblitt credits the continued condition with the deterioration of his vision. Interestingly, his eyes still function as they should – it’s the image-creating part of his brain that doesn’t.
After losing his sight and in the pit of depression, Bramblitt could conceive of just two possible future directions: taking his own life or finding a new way to be artistic. Fortunately, he opted for the latter avenue – and a new lease of creative life was the result.
However, getting to grips with creating art while being blind didn’t happen instantaneously for Bramblitt. Indeed, he even questioned his sanity the first time that he decided to stay up all night to draw, draw and draw some more. As the darkness turned into day, though, Bramblitt noted a strange sensation in his chest. After mistaking it for a potential fit, the burgeoning artist realized instead that the feeling was down to something of which he’d been in chronic need: optimism.
Even so, Bramblitt knew that if he were going to begin really painting, he’d have to start teaching himself from scratch. His first tool of choice in the endeavor was an applicator designed to apply fast-drying paint to tie-dyed clothing. The applicator left behind elevated brushstrokes, meaning Bramblitt could then trace what he’d put down on paper with his fingertips.
Satisfied with the results created by the applicator, Bramblitt progressed to oil paints and learned to tell the difference between the assorted colors via their subtly distinctive consistencies and thicknesses. After further incorporating a technique dubbed haptic visualization – essentially being able to envisage things by handling them – the blind painter was able to start his incredible work in earnest.
While he clearly has a gift for creating works of beauty, the “functionally blind” Bramblitt can only see brightness or shade; as a consequence, there are systematic – even somewhat culinary – approaches behind his artistic methods. For instance, in order to create a particular shade Bramblitt carefully measures out the correct amounts of paint from relevant, Braille-marked tubes before mixing; it’s a process that on his website he says is akin to following a cake recipe.
Bramblitt believes that for sighted painters the eyes have a dual purpose: verifying the colors being used and influencing the position of the artist’s instrument on the canvas. Yet the blind artist does both through the magic of touch.
Take the shade of gray as a case in point. Bramblitt, naturally, uses black and white paints to create it and says that the two shades, to him, feel different; black is somewhat fluid, and white has a texture like toothpaste. The artist knows he has a variation of gray, therefore, when he achieves a consistency that’s somewhere between the two: slightly runny and it’s a darker gray; slightly thicker and it’s a lighter hue of the color.
This relatively straightforward method nevertheless produces paintings of incredible detail. Considering the fact that Bramblitt often portrays things that he hasn’t actually witnessed, his works’ range of color, texture and vitality is nothing short of remarkable. However, the artist has also been known to depict events in his life that took place prior to him going blind.
And interestingly, when Bramblitt initially started exhibiting his work, he didn’t mention his blindness to visitors at his shows. Instead, at a concluding event at the end of the display period, he would stand to one side holding his white cane – and only when interested parties asked about the artist did he reveal his true identity.
Bramblitt has said that he did this not out of embarrassment, but because he didn’t want his disability to influence how people viewed his work. The artist was concerned that if others knew he was blind, it would compromise the meanings he was trying to convey.
Since those first shows, Bramblitt’s art has found buyers in more than 20 nations around the world. It has also brought him great media attention. The blind artist has been interviewed on CBS Evening News, has been featured on the U.K.’s BBC Radio and has additionally been the subject of an article by The New York Times, to name but a few appearances. Impressively, Bramblitt is also the recipient of three President’s Volunteer Service Awards.
For a painter who never even tried his craft while sighted, Bramblitt has experienced quite considerable success. He further works as an adviser to museums and has spoken at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has even written a book, Shouting in the Dark, about his personal triumph as well as how art has helped him to live a full and happy life.
It’s perhaps the extraordinarily personal nature of Bramblitt’s work that gives it some of its appeal. Art, furthermore, has in turn reshaped the blind painter’s life, and he hopes to now pass on his knowledge to the next generation. His workshops, for example, emphasize teaching innovative artistic practices to fresh-faced artists with disabilities, which may help them, like him, to forge new connections with the world around them.
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