Last week, bytegirl and I had the rare opportunity to witness something that has never been done before, and by an extraordinary person to boot. Say hello to John Bramblitt, an artist from Denton, Texas, who has just completed his first mural ever. And he did it at the JMZ Walls in Bushwick, Brooklyn! (round of applause please)
Okay, okay. On face value, that doesn't sound all that amazing. There are plenty of walls painted every day in Bushwick, by artists from all walks of life. But what makes this wall so incredibly special has more to do with a characteristic of the artist himself. A characteristic that some would consider a handicap or a disability.
For John, it has been his motivation to pursue his love of art.
Surprisingly, John Bramblitt has been completely blind since 2001.
Together with local artist Tony "Rubin" Sjöman (who worked on his own portion of the collaborative wall--the monochromatic portions with a touch of gold), the two painted this mural for World Sight Day (October 12th), to draw awareness to blindness, and the fact that 4 out of 5 blind people need not be.
We had the unique opportunity to watch this masterpiece being created. It was truly a gift to see the way he made use of his hands to "see" in a way I would never have imagined possible. The results are stunning.
All the while, his guide dog "Eagle" sat patiently nearby, offering moral support during this monumental endeavor.
The project was sponsored by See Now and Prevent Blindness. In the world, there are more than 223 million people suffering from vision loss or blindness. The majority of these eye conditions are treatable and preventable.These conditions keep children from excelling at school and living their best lives. Their vision is to help the world "see now". And this project works to bring attention to their cause.
We had the chance to talk with John about the project, and about living as a visual artist without sight:
Sold Magazine: Why did you choose New York City and specifically Bushwick, Brooklyn for the world's first mural painted by a blind artist?
John Bramblitt: If I had ever wondered if we had chosen the right space for the mural, it was answered on that very first day when we began painting, and the residents around the wall gathered to watch as we painted. There was such a feeling in the air of optimism, and pride for the neighborhood. It was such an honor to not just be an artist who was visiting, but to actually be included in the Bushwick neighborhood. I can't tell you how many hugs and handshakes I received while working on the wall, but the excitement and joy is something I will take back with me and will never forget.
This mural is to promote World Sight Day, and the fact that 4 out of 5 people who are blind don't need to be. Most sight loss is completely preventable. By spreading this message we can radically change people's lives for the better. This is something that we have to work on together. New York is a mecca for art, not just for the United States, but for the entire world. The fact that we wanted to do the mural here was a testament to just how important this message is.
SM: Who is the mural a portrait of and why did you choose her for your very first mural?
JB: As strange as this may sound, I love to collect faces, feeling the faces of people that I meet that express a certain energy or feeling. I love the stories of writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald whose characters are based on actual people. The people in the vast majority of my paintings are people that I actually meet and that allow me to feel their face. Often I may not use their face in a painting for years, but when the time is right and the composition calls for it, I have them in my bag of tricks. I am terrible with names though, ha. I never forget a face, but names are a completely different story. I wanted to use this particular model because I wanted to share the bright energy and optimism that I thought was needed for this painting. Often when people talk about blindness, or disability, the overall tone can become very serious and somber, and I did not want this for this mural. I want to send a very positive message, that working together we can and will make a difference.
SM: You mention in your TED talk that it is important that your portraits "feel" like the person. How does your mural feel to you?
JB: Did you know that it is possible to hear a smile? A person's voice changes when they are smiling and talking at the same time. There were so many smiles in the voices of the people around me as I painted that mural that I think they reflect exactly how I felt as well. A feeling of joy, and positive energy, that while this is a serious issue, it is also one that we can tackle head on and make a difference.
SM: Tell me about your signature. Two circles with x's on them. What is the meaning behind it?
JB: When I first lost my eyesight and began painting I was incredibly angry. I was so depressed, not only with losing my eyesight, but more viscerally for me I felt like I had lost my art as well. Learning to create artwork in new ways, by using my hands in place of my eyes, I began to see the world in a new way. I first signed my paintings in this way, with eyes crossed out, as a way of expressing anger of what I had lost. Over time, the artwork changed the way I felt not only about myself, but about art in general. You do not need eyesight to be able to appreciate art, or to even create it. My signature first was created out of anger, but I sign my paintings this way now as a way to celebrate where art truly comes from, our hearts and our minds.
SM: What is your personal definition of an artist?
JB: The most powerful aspect of our lives no matter where we are from or what we do for a living has to be our own personal ideas and emotions; what we feel and think about everything comes from this. A person who can share how they feel, convey their emotions, and perhaps even change how you think about a given topic is an artist. An artist may use paint, stone, music or any other means to convey an idea, but the true medium lies in being able to share your emotions with others.
SM: In one of your videos you speak about learning a different way of taking in information. Could you explain that process and just what it entails?
JB: The only way we really know anything about anything is through our senses. When I lost my eyesight I simply had to learn how to use my remaining senses in new ways. When I paint, my hands take the place of my eyes. I feel the raised contours of the paint. I mix different mediums in with the paint as well to make them actually feel different from one another. My computer uses sophisticated software to be able to read everything on the screen to me, and this way my ears can also take the place of my eyes. In one way, the loss of my eyesight diminished the amount of information I was able to take in about the world around me, but in another way it pushed my other senses to the extreme so that I now smell, hear, and can feel aspects of the world around me I had never noticed before when I was sighted.
SM: When you do a portrait of someone, tell us about that process. Do you have them in front of you and feel their face? Furthermore, do you have a picture of them and have a graphic artist convert it so that you can “feel” the nuances of the person through your computer?
JB: Your eyesight is perfectly adapted to taking a lot of information in quickly, and for movement. Your hands, on the other hand, are extremely adept at being able to tell the nuances of shape, texture, and spatial orientation. By far the best way to begin a portrait is to feel a person's face. There are techniques that allow you to touch and understand the most subtle changes in shape and contour, far more precise and easier than what eyesight offers. Excellent artists can stare at a model for an hour while making sketches, and sometimes still not have details of complex structures like ears or hands quite right. For me, I can touch a person's face, and all of the features that are needed for the painting, and have a detailed understanding extremely quickly. The other benefit is that you are literally "hands on" with a person whose portrait you are going to paint. You get to know them a lot better. Most of the time, after a few minutes you are both laughing; the true character of the person is coming out. I feel that very often a sighted artist misses out on this, because they are having to focus so heavily on getting the lines and contours just right. They are working so hard on their sketches that they miss the real person that lies beneath them. Thanks to modern technology though there are also other ways that I can come to understand the way a person or object looks. I have a massive 3D printer in my studio so that I can print out pretty much anything that I might not ordinarily be able to touch, and be able to touch and understand it in great detail. I also have touch-screen devices with software that allows me to reduce a photograph down to simple lines, and as I run my fingers across the screen it will vibrate and make sounds allowing me to understand the basic composition.
SM: You also mention that when you did a portrait of someone when you were sighted, you would compare how closely the portrait matched the person. I was struck by how your perception has changed now. You say, “Many of the most interesting parts of a person are invisible and hidden from view anyway. I think my blindness might be just the lens that is needed to see into that world.” Elaborate on this.
JB: When I was sighted and did an illustration of a person, I was extremely happy if the drawing looked like the person. The more that the drawing looked like the person then the better the drawing was. It was as simple as that. After losing my eyesight I was struck by how this was most likely the least interesting aspect of a person. It was still important to me to make a drawing look like the person, but more crucial was that it needed to feel like the person. If you were in a room crowded with people, and one of your family members walked in, everybody would see the same person. Everyone would see the same clothes, hair color, bone structure, etc., and yet everyone would also have a different idea of what your family member would be like. I found it fascinating that the actual perception could be so radically different from one person to the next even though the visual information everyone was receiving was exactly the same. Colors for me are emotions, and when I work on a portrait I want the emotional context of that painting to match that person at that particular time.
SM: Your use of color is unparalleled. Could you please tell us a little bit about your relationship with color and what your process is for distinguishing between colors and how you blend your palette?
JB: It may sound strange, but when I first lost my eyesight I was worried that I would forget what color looked like. I should not have been worried. I see color when I hear music, which is why so many of my paintings are also musical paintings, and in my studio I am surrounded by speakers. I choose music that enhances the ideas and emotional content that I want to have in my painting. Emotions too are color to me, as well as flavor. Instead of color being diminished for me, it explodes around me every time I hear a song or meet someone.
Controlling color when I paint and understanding what colors I'm working with is actually a simple process. I will "Braille" my paints so that I can read the labels, and therefore know what paints I am beginning with. I also mix different mediums into the paints to actually make each color feel different. So a Titanium White may feel thick like toothpaste, and Ivory Black may feel like runny oil. If I want to mix a gray that is halfway between the two, I simply have to mix the two colors together until the texture is right between the two. I can also use a recipe type system, where I will mix two parts of this color with four parts of that, and so on. My favorite way to mix color though of course is by using the texture. Very often I have changed an entire color scheme of a painting because I mixed a paint that just felt so good I had to use more of it, haha.
SM: You say that people may re-look at your pieces to try and “find the blindness in the art”. What do you think they are looking for? Do you think blindness can be found in your work?
JB: Since losing my eyesight I have been obsessed with this idea of perception, of actually understanding the world around us as it truly is. If there has been any benefit of being a non-visual visual artist, perhaps it is that it underscores this idea of what perception truly is, and what it means to make art. At first when I showed my art I didn't tell people that I was blind. I didn't want it to interfere with people looking at my art. When it came out that I was blind, I think it was for the best. Instead of alienating me, I think it instead just shows how we are more alike. All of us have parts of our lives that we are 'blind' to. I think each of us, as we live our lives, are trying to piece together who we truly are, our place in the world, and how we fit in. I think when someone is looking for the blindness in my artwork, they are actually investigating what perception means to themselves as well. They are opening an internal dialogue that I hope leads to revelations within themselves.
I think there is blindness in my artwork, and I think it mirrors those unseen properties that we all have within each of us. Sometimes, I think, it is these hidden properties that might be the most beautiful and interesting aspects about us and well worth our time to investigate and to think about.
SM: What is your favorite color and why?
JB: My favorite color is Bone Black. The traditional way of making this color is to take bones of animals and char them until they are mostly just carbon. These animals have lived their lives, and just when you think everything would be over for them, suddenly they have a new beginning. This carbon dust then is mixed with oil forming the paint that is then put into tubes. But even then it is still inert and lifeless. Those tubes will sit on the shelves of paint stores until someone has an idea or an emotion that they just have to express and share with others. Only then, when it is spread out on the canvas does it gain new life. I think we all feel at times that a situation may be hopeless, that we can't see any good coming out of anything. I love how this color mirrors how sometimes something wonderful and brilliant can come from an ending.
SM: One last question: If you could have your eyesight restored would you? And have you always felt the same about your answer?
JB: It really depends. If I could have my vision restored and still remember everything I learned, then I would certainly do it. Then again, if I could get x-ray vision, or the ability to fly or anything like that I would do that as well, LOL. On the other hand, if through some miracle of Science Fiction, a scientist said they could take me back in time and make it so that I was never blind, I would not do that. In the beginning, during the transition of me learning how to live my life without eyesight, it was a nightmare. I was a very visual person, and I felt like I had lost everything. All hope for my future life was gone. But then a funny thing happened. I started to learn new things about myself and the world around me. Struggle makes you dig deeper. I began to meet people who struggled as well, perhaps with disability, perhaps with other aspects of life that they found difficult. I've met the most incredible people, and I found that many of the aspects that I thought were so important about life before my loss of eyesight were actually very superficial. I may be blind, but the truth is my life is more colorful and I am happier than I've ever been, sighted or not.