In the fourth episode of our interview series Supersense Presents, our hard-working community manager and brilliant interview host Shane Lowe chats with the super talented blind painter John Bramblitt.
Bramblitt is a Denton graduate who always dreamt of being a creative writing teacher. But after losing his vision in 2001 due to the complications arising from epilepsy and Lyme's disease and when he thought there was no future for him, he discovered painting. Today he is one of the most well-known blind painters who creates incredibly vivid paintings and is featured in the media countless times.
In this delightful interview, Shane and John talked about how art helps to cope with all the ups and downs in life, how John found a way out of depression and into the world of painting, and the ways to deal with the whirlwind of events our world faces nowadays.
Click the video below to listen to this eye-opening and touching conversation. To check other interviews in this series, you can visit our YouTube channel or go to our blog page and read the transcripts of Chad Allen, Question the Rapper, and Precious Perez.
For the transcript of the interview, continue reading.
Shane: How's it going, man? Where are you right now?
John: It's a good day, man. I'm sitting in the studio right now, so it's a good day.
Shane: So, are you painting right now as you're talking to me?
John: I just stopped when you called. It's hard for me to walk and chew gum at the same time; I'm one of those people. I'm currently working on a painting of Einstein, a painting of a cat, and a painting of a dancing lady. I usually paint several projects at a time.
Shane: That's really neat. Tell me about your creative process there. What does it look like?
John: Because I can't see, my hands do the work that my eyes used to do. I have to wait for the paint to dry before I can check it, but I use paint to draw lines that I can feel. The lines are raised, and each color has a different texture from each other and the surface I'm painting on. Black and white feel different, as does every color, so it gives me a way to use and mix color purely by using touch.
Shane: That is such a cool concept. How do the colors feel different?
John: The first thing I do is Braille the tube, so each color is labeled. Then I mix in different mediums with the paint. You might just think of paint as sticky stuff with color, and you'd be right. The sticky stuff is just a medium that holds the pigment, and you can change that medium. You can add mediums to make the paint feel as thick as toothpaste or as runny as oil. You can make it feel bumpy or gritty, or even so thick that you could carve it with a knife. That makes it incredibly easy to tell the difference between colors on a canvas.
Shane: That is amazing. I had never contemplated a way of doing this, and hearing the solution you've come up with is so interesting to me. Are those variations in texture also visible?
John: Really, it depends. A lot of times, when I draw, I use white paint on a white background so the paint can be felt but not seen. Other times, I'll draw with black lines on a white background so people can see it. I paint mostly with acrylics now because they dry quickly and have a nice range of texture, and that's where I mix in the mediums.
Shane: That makes perfect sense. I also wanted to go back for a moment because I caught earlier that you mentioned that you were able to see in the past. If you don't mind, walk me through your journey a little bit.
John: Well, I think I could draw before I could walk. Growing up, I took every class I could. I was a huge nerd then, and I'm a huge nerd now. I read every book I could. I learned how to draw blueprints for houses, cartooning, portraits of people, etc. However, I didn't really try painting, even though I revered painters. I loved reading about them, the ways they'd set up their studios, and how they'd mix up their paints. However, I still drew every day. Part of that was due to health issues because I was sick a lot as a kid.
I was born with epilepsy and kidney problems. Later on, in my early teenage years, I also got Lyme disease, which did not play well with epilepsy. This was 20 years ago, when the lyme disease wasn't very prevalent in Texas, so it went undiagnosed for a long time. As a result, though, I was in and out of hospitals a lot as a kid. I was sick all the time, but my friends and family were always on my side. They never treated me like I was ill and pushed me to try things so that I never felt different. Art was the other thing that pushed me through. Art is an amazing way to deal with a bad day because it's like a mini-vacation. You're not thinking about all of the bad stuff.
Shane: Absolutely, you can get lost in it. Art makes it really easy to become present in the moment. I'm not a visual artist, but I'm a musician, and that's what I do when I've had a bad day. I get behind a drum kit or work on music. That's how I disconnect from 2020.
John: Yes, that's it. And if it's a good day, art is a great way to celebrate the good day as well! You want to work, whether it's a good or bad day, and that's a great thing. So, I was drawing every day. I never thought about making it a career; it's just how I dealt with things. It wasn't important for me to show my drawings. I would completely fill the front and back of a page and put it into a stack of other drawings. Once the stack got too high, I threw the stack away, and that was that. If a drawing was good, it would still go in the stack. If it was awful, the stack was where it lived. Either way, I drew everything. That's how I outlined papers in school. I would doodle on everything. I would always have a pad, a pencil, and a paperback novel in my pockets. When I was in college, though, I would have a lot of seizures, and they got continuously worse to the point where the doctors didn't think I'd get out of them.
My heart would stop sometimes, my breathing would stop, and the activity in my brain was too much. My vision would also be affected to some degree when I would come out, to the point where the impact was permanent. I knew I had epilepsy, but I never thought about losing my eyesight. I thought I'd have to drop out of college. Fortunately, they had a really strong disability services office. I dropped by their office to say goodbye because I didn't know yet how I would continue my classes. I knew the director pretty well, and when I told him what happened, he told me that this wasn't a reason to leave. At first, I thought he was so nice to lie to me like that, but he was telling the truth, and I didn't realize it because of how angry and depressed I was. I know now that I was also very ignorant, but I stayed in school because of that conversation. So, at the same time, I was taking my courses, I was learning all of the standard stuff. Braille, screen readers, orientation, and mobility, all of that. On the surface, I joked about how I'd be a great blind guy, but it didn't help me at all on the inside. I was really angry, and I hid that from a lot of people. I felt like my sight had been stolen from me. The way I thought of it, people go to college because they have hope for the future, but when my sight went, I couldn't envision any future at all. I knew how depression worked, so I made sure to spend at least a little time with my friends and family every day. I didn't want to get lost in those negative feelings, and time with other people is crucial when you're at that point. Otherwise, though, I didn't think I could change or evolve, so my goals were to get a degree in something, get any kind of job, and not be a burden on my family.
After about a year, I was able to leave my apartment and find my college campus independently. It was still intense because everything felt foreign. If my concentration slipped for a second, I would hit a pole or something, so it felt like everything was out to get me. It was the hardest thing I ever went through, but I started noticing that my eyes aren't what made my perception. The brain is what creates our vision and understanding of the world, not our eyes. I don't want to say that sight is overrated, but it's kind of overrated. And that's coming from a guy who was sighted for the first half of my life!
Shane: That is my favorite quote from this conversation so far. I completely agree!
John: That's awesome. Despite all of that, though, I still felt cut off from the world. I was afraid that I would forget what color looked like. So after that year had passed, I was walking independently; I would envision the directions I had to take as I was using my cane. I happened to think that the curves in the sidewalk were like lines, and if you happened across a tree along the way, you knew exactly where you were on that route. The lines intersected each other, and the curves formed the city that I was standing in. At an intersection, I knew exactly where I was within the city because those two lines only intersect at one specific point. I was using my sense of touch to navigate a city, and I was positive. I could use the same skills to navigate a canvas and probably even better. Visual art has always been about understanding the world and converting a 3-D space into two dimensions. In the same way that a cane gives a two-dimensional image of wherever you're going, and our brains build that into a 3-D understanding, orientation and mobility are more similar to visual art than I had ever imagined. At the same time, my hands and my brain still knew how to draw, so I just needed to understand what my hands were doing and coordinate that with the ideas I had in my mind.
I started practicing by drawing squares. I would draw a perfect square, then try to draw a square inside of the first one that fit precisely. From there, someone had given me a wooden statue of Buddha, and even though I'm not Buddhist, I always really liked the statue and wanted to attempt a drawing of it. I started in the evening and worked on the project all night. Paper was everywhere, but in the end, I had a drawing of that statue. It was terribly misshapen, but I was happier about that drawing than I had ever made in my life because I knew that with art if you can do it a little bit, you can do it a lot. Art is all about what you can do; what you can't doesn't even enter the equation.
I figured that people would think I was crazy, but in the end, I started showing my art because I wanted to meet other artists. I was painting from 14 to 16 hours a day, and that was my way of reconnecting with the world. You don't hear a sighted person say that since they used their eyes all day yesterday, they'd had enough and didn't need to see today. So I started doing the shows, and what was really cool was that people didn't realize I was blind. I wouldn't open the shows. I would just hang the artwork before the opening time, leave for a bit, then come back once people were already there. The shows went really well, and that was a huge confidence boost for me. I never thought anyone would want to see my work, let alone purchase it.
After a while, it got out that I was blind because some magazines wanted to write a few articles about me. That was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I started getting calls from all kinds of charities and organizations who wanted me to host workshops, talk to their clients, etc. That was the most amazing thing because I got to travel around the country to talk to children with autism, older people with Alzheimer's, soldiers with PTSD, people from all walks of life. Everyone was dealing with something different, but I felt so much at home because we all understood each other. It was almost like we grew up in the same town like we were all friends. I felt the most at peace than I had in a long time, and I realized that my blindness was actually helping me become more connected with the world than I ever had. Everyone faces something they feel is bigger than they are; that's just part of being human.
Art is all about inclusion, and I never charge anything for the workshops. Art is universal, and I didn't want money to get in the way of something that could help another person. The other thing is that a lot of museums are quiet like a church, but my workshops are louder. We're laughing together and having a good time. I also try to work with people in the area to make the workshops immersive. Being able to taste, touch, or smell things about exhibits really excites the brain and opens the door for an unforgettable experience for everyone.
Shane: This is really incredible to me because I have never heard anything like it. Thank you so much for sharing. Are you also doing virtual workshops?
John: Yes, I am! Before COVID, I was flying two or three times a month, and when the virus hit, I thought I was done doing workshops for a while. I'm not traveling, but I am doing more workshops now than I did before. It's so easy for me to be in the studio painting, and all I have to do is flip on the camera and host a quick workshop. I've done them with libraries, schools, businesses, speaking events for galas, all kinds of things. It's different, but I've been so happy to be able to connect.
I'm also streaming live on Facebook every week. I've gotten to meet so many people that way. We get to chat about art and silly stuff as well. It's a lot of fun.
You can find John Bramblitt on Facebook, Bramblitt on Twitter and Instagram, and more at Bramblitt.com.
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