36. The Artist Within

36. The Artist Within

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

The Artist Within

All art requires courage.

~Anne Tucker

In April of 2013, I was ready to give art up forever. My lifelong blinding disease, retinitis pigmentosa, had struck again. It had already robbed me of my social work position, my driver’s license, and most of my sight, leaving me legally blind with vision of 20/400. Now it was taking my ability to create art too. I could no longer see details well enough to do my celebrity portraits with a Sharpie.

“I can’t tell who that is,” my family and friends would say of my sketches. “Who is that?”

It was time to call it quits. I’d enjoyed my sketching while it lasted. There was no such thing as a legally blind portraitist. I drew from reference photos, and they had to match up, or at least be recognizable.

“Oh well,” I remarked on Facebook. “It was good while it lasted.” In an almost cynical way I added, “Now I’m trying to find a way of painting that doesn’t involve vision. I guess that would mean painting with my fingers.”

I didn’t really mean it. I had heard of blind sculptors. But blind artists who worked in visual art? Out of the question.

But a Facebook friend named Sonja took the idea to heart: “Let your inspiration and your inner self guide you when you paint with your fingers, Tammy. Intuitive painting is the purest kind of painting there is.”

I got up from my computer and walked around my living room, thinking. Could I finger paint?

I had had four years of high school art, and two or three more years of college art, plus all of those years of drawing. Impossible. I wasn’t a painter; I was a sketcher. I had only one painting — “Yellow Flower” — and I’d used a brush.

But Sonja’s words grew in my heart like tiny mustard seeds, until they compelled me to grab my white cane and walk down the street to a school supply store, where I bought a few bottles of acrylic and a pad of art paper.

This was new territory. My heart quickened with both hope and dread as I hurried back home. What if I couldn’t do it? What if this really was the end of art for me? What if people laughed?

But what if I COULD do it? What if Sonja was right and I just needed to give this new method a try.

Once I got the paint home and set it all out in the kitchen, I realized I didn’t have an easel, so I used my kitchen counter. I didn’t care. I would have used the floor.

Then once I had the paint poured into little colored circles on a paper plate, I stood there and realized I had no idea what to paint.

I’d always used a reference photo before to draw my celebrity portraits.

Now I couldn’t see photos well enough to use them. I couldn’t see the details of a flower well enough to copy it. I lived a block away from the beautiful Ohio River and couldn’t see it well enough to do a landscape of it.

Creating art from my own imagination—something original—was entirely new and different for me. What would I paint?

A little frustrated, I wondered why I had even bothered. And then I thought about what Sonja had said, what she really meant, and realized that I could not rely on sight, because it wasn’t good enough. I had to rely on intuition, imagination, and memory.

I had to let go of my old way of thinking about art and my old way of doing art — which was vision-based.

My new way had to be intuitive, or it couldn’t be done.

It took me about an hour of just standing there re-wiring my thoughts to this new way of thinking. And then only a few minutes to decide what I would paint from my imagination—all the memories of the rural scenery I’d grown up with in Kentucky. Barns, hills, shacks, trees, creeks, houses, farms, flowers—nature all around me that I could barely see with my eyes now, but was brilliantly vivid in my mind’s eye.

I felt tears well up and a lump come to my throat as I patted my fingertips into my paint circles and touched them to my first piece of art paper.

I didn’t know how it would turn out. I felt like a child standing there with paint on my fingers. But I pushed myself to do it, swirling my fingers to make the mental images I felt rather than saw.

Once finished, I couldn’t really see how my first finger painting turned out. I’d have to show it to someone to find out how good or bad it was.

The next day I invited one of my best friends over for lunch. She was an artist too, and after she looked at my first finger paintings said, “I’m not sure. Keep trying.”

Another mustard seed.

After she left, I walked around my apartment again with a growing hope and realization: I could do art again, just in a different way.

It wouldn’t be perfect, it wouldn’t be a copy of a photo, and it wouldn’t be a celebrity. It would be me.

I could do this.

My new style of art has opened up opportunities. A few of my paintings have been included in local art exhibits, and I’ve sold a few.

But more important than the personal satisfaction of becoming a professional artist are the opportunities to help others. I taught finger painting to a group of children in a community outreach program called Camp Discovery, and I was invited by local art teachers to discuss ways to teach art to blind or visually impaired students.

Not only am I showing the world that the blind and visually impaired can create art, I am showing myself.

~Tammy Ruggles

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