Art Makes a Good Day Better

Art Makes a Good Day Better
Posted on 04/26/2017
Artist John Bramblitt

Emerging from a world of darkness to one of vivid color and imagination, the journey to John Bramblitt’s success as a painter is like no other.  An artist from a young age who always loved to draw, Bramblitt didn’t become an award-winning painter until after losing his sight in 2001, but he has become the world's number one blind painter (TopTenz), leading the way for adaptive techniques to create art for people of all abilities and disabilities.

When Lincoln Elementary Guidance Counselor, Elizabeth Petersen, was shown a picture of one of Bramblitt’s paintings by braille specialist, Rachel Meyer, and Meyer shared how inspirational he is to a Lincoln student and his family, it became Petersen’s mission to bring Bramblitt to Spencer.  “I went to school to be an art major, so that right away struck a personal chord with me, and I decided to make it my pet project to get John here this year,” said Petersen.  “I applied for a grant through the Spencer Community School Foundation, and they generously awarded the grant to bring John here.  We also created a partnership with Buena Vista University to defray some of the costs.” 

While in Spencer, Bramblitt held workshops for students from Fairview and Lincoln, as well as high school students.  After a brief introduction by Petersen, Bramblitt kicked off the morning workshop by introducing his guide dog, Echo.  Echo is a black lab who was trained to become a guide dog for the first two years of her life, and she has been guiding Bramblitt for 10 years.  “Echo is actually famous and has been put into the Animal Hall of Fame because she is the first guide dog in the country that was taught a who set of new things that a guide dog can learn,” said Bramblitt.  After giving some examples of what she can do, Bramblitt asked Echo to find a door to demonstrate a small portion of her capabilities. Her trip to Spencer was her last work trip because she will be retiring and will become Bramblitt’s full-time pet. 

Following the demonstration with Echo, Bramblitt shared a bit about his personal story.  “I lost my eye sight when I was a student at the University of North Texas, and I would have given up on everything, but I was really lucky to be in school and that the school was so proactive and accommodating to my needs,” said Bramblitt.  “I have drawn all of my life, and I was sick a lot as a child, diagnosed with epilepsy at the age of two and losing a kidney by the time I was 7.  I also had Lyme disease later on.  I lost my vision and about 40 percent of my hearing while I was in college.” 

After losing his sight, and while still in school, Bramblitt learned braille and started using screen readers, but the best thing that he learned was Orientation and Mobility, how to use the sense of touch to get around. He started by using a cane, and after discovering that he could successfully navigate through his day, Bramblitt thought he could get back into his childhood passion of drawing, and it proved to be a great way to deal with a bad day or make a good day better.  At his first few art shows, Bramblitt didn’t tell anyone that he was blind.  Eventually the word got out, and he was contacted by nonprofit organizations and charities that asked him to work with their clients, and that led to working with well-known museums like the Guggenheim, Metropolitan, Dallas Museum of Art and other museums all over the country.  Bramblitt’s goal in working with the museums was to make them more inclusive so that anybody who comes into the museum, whether hearing impaired, visually impaired or 80 years old and finds it a struggle to get around, can make it interesting and fun. 

Bramblitt went on to explain that he spends most of his time as a studio artist, painting 12 to 16 hours daily in his studio when he isn’t traveling.  “I am a visually impaired visual artist which might seem like an oxymoron.  I am a blind painter who works in the visual arts, but I can’t see.”  He challenged the students by asking, “Does anyone have any ideas, if you can’t see the paints and you can’t see the drawings, what sense you might use?”  When the auditorium remained silent, Bramblitt took a guess, thanking the students for being polite by raising their hands to answer his questions, but he reminded the students that since he is blind, they would simply need to say their answers.  Students excitedly responded with, “touch!”  “You are all so smart!  Yes, I use my sense of touch!”

Bramblitt creates his paintings by using modern Orientation and Mobility techniques, combined with composition and painting theories.  He textures the paint, making each color feel differently, and draws using paint that leaves a subtle raised line that can be felt to guide him around the canvas. While continuing to talk, Bramblitt got started painting.  As his painting of a forest, complete with trees, a deer and a beautiful background came to life, Bramblitt said that this is the first time in history that visually impaired people are getting involved in painting.  There have been master painters in the past who have started to lose their eyesight, and they have adapted and come up with different ways to paint, but this is the first time that people who have a visual impairment are just getting into artwork.  “Art came to me at a time in my life when it shouldn’t have.  It was ridiculous really to be in the visual arts when you are nonvisual.  When I first started painting, I was very sad and angry that I had lost my eyesight, so I would sign my paintings with two little circles that are crossed out, symbolizing two eyes that are crossed out,” said Bramblitt.  “After I had been painting for about 8 months or so, I started to relax more and feel happy, and I kept signing my paintings that way because I realized that you don’t really need vision to appreciate art, and you don’t need vision to be able to create art.  Art comes from a place that is a lot further down and is one of the things that makes us human.  Art is a way of sharing emotions and ideas.”

Following questions by the students, the first workshop ended, and after a brief break, students from Lincoln School began to file into the high school auditorium.  Bramblitt conducted the next workshop much the same as the first, but it held special significance for Lincoln fourth grader, Zachary Nolin, and his family.  Zachary has been blind since birth, and Bramblitt has been a beacon of hope and optimism for the Nolin family.  “I’ve known John Bramblitt for close to ten years,” said Zachary’s father, Brook Nolin.  “Over the years, I’ve seen the admiration for his artwork grow in leaps and bounds.  John’s background story and the use of vibrant colors in his art helps brighten some of those days that might seem dark.  Our family has high expectations for Zachary.  By meeting and knowing people like John, we know that blindness can’t be used as a reason not to try something new.  We expect Zachary to try.”       

An artist indeed, but Bramblitt’s story held so much more significance from which everyone can learn.  Life can be difficult, and with a positive mindset and a bit of courage, it can shift from darkness to a brightly painted canvas.