Blind artist: 'Painting is seeing for me'

John Bramblitt helps people view world in new ways
Thursday, March 5, 2009 | 9:07 p.m. CST; updated 2:02 p.m. CST, Friday, March 6, 2009
Blind artist John Bramblitt listens as Lee Elementary third-grader Elora Matthews explains the story of "The Giving Tree." Bramblitt visited the school Thursday to teach students about how he uses the different textures of paints to identify colors and to help the students learn to paint blindfolded.

This story has been updated to correct the sponsor of artist John Bramblitt's visit. It is the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology.

COLUMBIA — About 17 third-graders at Lee Elementary School sat at their tables in art class Thursday with white blindfolds over their eyes. The children had empty pages in front of them as well as four cups of paint — in red, yellow, blue and white. Each color had a different texture, so the students could feel the difference as they painted.

Before they were blindfolded, the children chose either a blank sheet of paper or a picture with a raised outline. When they started to paint, they began to giggle and talk.

If you go

What: "Driven," an exhibition of award-winning emerging young artists (ages 16 through 25) with disabilities

When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday through April 19

Where: Museum of Art and Archaeology, 1 Pickard Hall, MU

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"I think this feels weird."

"This one feels like sand."

"What color am I using?"

"This is really hard."

“Stop,” said their art teacher, Ann Mehr. But she wasn't scolding. She wanted them to use their other senses. “Do you hear the sound of the faucet running?” she asked. “How do the different paints feel?”

Mehr’s students were learning what it feels like to paint without sight, just as artist John Bramblitt does every day. After losing his sight because of epilepsy, Bramblitt, 37, was declared legally blind in 2001. Since then, the artist from Denton, Texas, has developed a new sense of sight. His paintings have brought him national attention, and he is visiting Columbia this week to lead workshops and talk about artists with disabilities.

"Painting is seeing for me," Bramblitt said after working with Mehr's students. "There's much more color in the world now, and as time goes on, it's brighter and brighter."

During workshops with two of Mehr's classes, Bramblitt explained to the students how he lost his sight and how it has affected his life and art.

“You all use your eyes to see,” he told the children. “I do the same thing, but I do it with my hands.”

To create a painting, Bramblitt starts by sketching a stencil using stiff fabric paint. Once this paint dries, he is able to feel the outline of the picture with his fingertips. He said that because different colors of oil paints have different textures and consistencies, he is able to identify paint colors simply by touching them. At a workshop Wednesday with art teachers, Bramblitt said his favorite color to paint with is electric blue, a mixture of white and deep blue.

“It’s so creamy," he said. "It feels soft like human skin; it's silky and fun to work with.” 

On Thursday, after learning the methods, the students were blindfolded and asked to use their other senses to create the paintings. Each paint color had a substance added, such as sand or flour, so the students could differentiate.

Third-grader Praise Tyler devised another system in which he separated his colors into the four points of a compass.

“The red is in the north, so I know where it is,” Praise said. “And the blue is next to it.”

After Praise finished his painting, the boy said: “I’m glad he taught us this. I want to paint another one.”

Bramblitt’s presentation was part of a unit about people who have changed American history. Recently, the students have learned about history-changers who also had disabilities.

“It shows that we are all able to make a difference, no matter our disabilities,” Mehr said after class Thursday. “Certainly having John here is a capstone experience to showing the kids that everyone can make a difference.”

The MU Museum of Art and Archaeology brought Bramblitt and his wife, Jacqi Serie, to Columbia to help highlight the museum's exhibit “Driven,” which spotlights artists with disabilities. The exhibit, which runs through April 19, features 15 artists between the ages of 16 and 25. Bramblitt's works are not included in the exhibit.

Cathy Callaway, associate museum educator, said learning about artists with disabilities is important to her.

“It broadens your horizons," Callaway said. "It gives you an appreciation for what people with disabilities can achieve, and that’s what we’ve been talking about in our exhibit ‘Driven.’”

The museum was able to arrange Bramblitt’s visit through a Missouri Arts Council grant.

"We couldn't have done it without the funding," said Mary Pixley, associate museum curator of European and American art, at the first of two student workshops Thursday. 

Pixley looked around at the children who smiled and laughed as they painted. “We really wanted to make a difference, and I think we have,” she said.

Bramblitt, who gave a lecture Thursday at the Reynolds Journalism Institute, will be at Orr Street Studios for an artists roundtable and then back at Lee with the fourth-graders on Friday.

Bramblitt and Serie, who leads the North Texas Daily newspaper at the University of North Texas, travel frequently to speak about Bramblitt’s art. In Columbia, the focus is on teaching children about artists with disabilities.

“We want to show kids that there are ways to be creative even if you are disabled,” Serie said.

She said that when they visit different parts of the country, her husband is usually asked to give a lecture.

"That’s great," Serie said, "but it really gets fun when we’re able to work with the kids and get messy."

At the workshop for teachers on Wednesday, 13 teachers from Columbia elementary schools gathered at Lee and got their hands dirty as Bramblitt taught them his unique way of painting without seeing. Marcia Balkin and Anne Norris, two first-grade teachers from Lee, giggled just like the children as they mixed finger paints and blindfolded each other before painting their sightless masterpieces.

“We’re always looking for new ways to reach the kids,” Balkin said as she completed an elaborate flower painting.

Josh Green, who teaches sixth- and seventh-graders at Bearfield School, had a little trouble staying in the lines with his blindfold on.

“You can’t mess up with art. You can’t make a mistake because it’s something that you created,” Green said as he looked at his jumbled artwork.

He hopes to take what he has learned from Bramblitt back to his students. “My students need to feel success,” Green said as he cleaned off his brushes and packed up for the day.

In Mehr’s art class, the students enjoyed experiencing life through their guest speaker’s eyes. Several of them practiced walking with their eyes closed and commented on how hard it was.

Third-grader Joseph Jacobs decided he wanted Bramblitt to be the new owner of his picture of balloons. “I thought he might like one of my paintings,” Joseph said.

Bramblitt was touched by the gift.

“That’s definitely going on the wall in my studio,” he said.

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