Art and blindness are not often associated with each other, but both have always been a natural part of my life. I wasn’t born blind. In fact, I’m not completely, totally blind right now: I’m ‘legally blind’, which means I have just enough vision to be dangerous.
I was born with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a blinding disease that robs you of your sight over time. I can make out general, blurry shapes and colours during the day, but at night I see total blackness, except for a few blurry lights here and there. And the moon.
It took years to become legally blind. A friend of mine once remarked that he would just as soon go blind all at once and get the adjustment period over with. But it wasn’t that way with me. I was given my first pair of glasses at the age of two, and my vision only went downhill from there. In elementary school, I had to sit at the front desk in order to see the chalkboard. With RP comes night blindness, so I always had to hold onto someone’s arm or jacket sleeve when I was out at night. In some ways I felt limited, but now I realise that was just insecurity seeping in. At times it was hard for me to ask for help, or have anyone know I had a visual impairment, especially when it came to dating. Sometimes I’d be on a date at night in a car, and could only judge how it was going by what he said or how he said it, instead of seeing the expression on his face or seeing his gestures.
At age twelve, I began to sketch animals and portraits with a number two pencil, my eyes close to the sketchpad where I could see what I was doing. Since my vision had declined by high school, the number two had become a charcoal pencil, and that’s what I mainly used during my four years of high school art. I had to sit close to the model or object we were drawing. I’m sure I left details out, capturing instead the general ideas. Since charcoal is darker, I could see this better than the lighter shade of a lead pencil. I used whatever I could to keep my art alive. My art teacher was aware of this, and often commented that my darker sketches were the better ones. My decline in vision was responsible for my style, in a way. Light sketches gave way to darker, more contrasty ones. The nuanced shading of hash marks gave way to a starker look, not unlike something you might see in a graphic novel.
PULL QUOTE: Who’s to say which came first: the chicken or the egg, my personality or my disease?.
As I grew older, my vision worsened with each year, so my adjustment process was never quick or over. I’m always in a constant state of adjustment. Going blind, slowly, teaches you a lot about patience, adaptation, and resourcefulness. My naturally positive, easy-going disposition helps me to move forward rather than backward. Perhaps that disposition is a by-product of my visual impairment. Who’s to say which came first: the chicken or the egg, my personality or my disease?
It wasn’t until adulthood that I realised I was losing my eyesight. My family thought it best to let me enjoy my youth without the full knowledge. Yes, I knew my vision kept getting worse, but had no real idea that I would lose most of my vision over the course of my life, and the words ‘blind’ or ‘legally blind’ were never spoken until I was forty years old. Even then, those words were only spoken by an eye specialist.
My first introduction to a computer was fifth-grade maths, in 1970. I was ten. Computers were not the norm, at least in the rural area of Kentucky where I lived. Word spread around our little country school that there was this new big machine called The Computer in a small room in the back of the principal’s office that would improve our maths skills. The kids that had used it relayed their encounters with this science fiction technology.
‘It can talk to you,’ one fellow student told me.
‘It gives you only ten minutes to work out ten problems,’ another explained.
‘It knows what you’re thinking,’ said yet another.
‘It types your score right there on your paper before you get up out of your seat.’
As a wordy person who’d been advanced three grades in reading, I gulped in fear. I felt the colour drain from my face. I walked with my maths class down the one and only hallway of our school, toward my doom: The Computer Room, where we lined up at the door to use the machine as if we were lining up for a firing squad. The kids coming out one at a time after they’d used it looked as sick as I felt.
When it was my turn, I stepped inside the small room with fear tight in my stomach. Approaching the computer, which dominated its tiny metal stand, felt like approaching the electric chair. The computer hummed like an electric typewriter. It was alive. Almost human, it seemed. I sat down at the desk, and came face to face with The Computer. Was it a robot? Did it have a brain? Why did I have to use this to learn maths?
A teacher came in and instructed me on how to use The Computer. After I put in my name, The Computer, like a giant typewriter, typed out ten maths problems for me, one at a time. And I had to type in the answers, one at a time. Each tap I made sounded like a firecracker. Snap! Snap! Snap! Oh, why couldn’t we use pencil and paper for this? Maths was hard enough as it was.
I started writing stories and poems around the seventh or eighth grade. They were short stories about teen romance and tragedy. My first one was “Julie Loves Tony”, about a high school girl who goes to a racetrack to watch her boyfriend drive, only to witness his death in a fiery crash. Such drama and angst! I passed it around to my friends, who really liked it and encouraged me to write more, so I did. I wrote for years after that, saving my stories in a small suitcase or duffel bag. I also started writing poems, mostly about nature or ideas, and I saved those too.
It was exciting when I started using a typewriter. I excelled in my high school typing class because I wanted to type out my short stories and poems instead of handwriting them. Most people who take a typing class learn without looking at the keys, which was easy for me since I couldn’t see them very well anyway.
By the time I reached college, my glasses were so thick I was too embarrassed to wear them any longer, and I switched to contact lenses. It got harder and harder to sketch the way I wanted, and it was frustrating, so by the time college was over and I was into my social work career I more or less allowed art to fall by the wayside. But I did learn to use a personal computer there. I had to. As a graduate assistant in 1992, my one and only duty was to assist a very computer-literate professor in his summer drug and alcohol workshop. He used a laptop that was as big as a suitcase.
‘But I don’t know how to use a computer,’ I had said. I felt too embarrassed to relate my first and only experience with the math computer in fifth grade. He told me, ‘If you’re going to work for me, you’re going to have to learn. I’ll teach you.’
He did teach me, and well. And this is where I fell in love with The Computer. So much so that I bought my first personal computer with my financial aid money: a Tandy from Radio Shack. It was such a useful tool for a writer; I felt like kicking myself for not learning how to use one before. Now, not only could I write my stories on a computer, I could store them and print them out as well.
Since I couldn’t do art anymore, my interest had turned to writing. I had to say, ‘It was good while it lasted’. Who was I to complain? I knew some completely blind people who would have given anything for even the limited vision I had. I had been given a talent for sketching, and had used it to the best of my ability. No regrets there.
I moved on. Art was still a passion, but I expressed it in other ways – by enjoying the art of others, and consuming biographies of great masters like Van Gogh, Picasso, and Claude Monet. At this point, I could still read regular print with magnifying glasses. Reading about art had replaced the act of making art.
There’s an old saying that goes: ‘Life begins at forty’. Well, my life turned upside down at forty. My vision had declined so much, in such small increments over the years, that by the time I was forty, my eye doctor determined me legally blind. But it was confusing; I could still see. It didn’t seem that my sight had deteriorated that much.
It was my eye doctor that told me I had RP. The diagnosis changed everything. Because of this medical determination, I could no longer drive, which meant I could no longer perform my duties as a social worker, which meant I was forced to give up my chosen profession and go home.
It was bewildering. Even though I’d accepted all along that my vision was worsening over time, I had never really grasped that I was losing it altogether. After I read up on it (wearing my magnifying spectacles, of course), I felt like a lobster in a pot of hot water that hadn’t seen what was coming because the heat had been turned up gradually.
PULL QUOTE: I had no choice but to face the fact: I was going blind.
I retired at age forty, and spent the next few months grappling with the loss of my career, the loss of my vision, and what I would do with the rest of my life. If I’m being honest, losing my career hurt much worse than losing my vision. The vision loss had happened so slowly, and had always been a part of me, it almost didn’t seem real. But the sudden loss of my profession altered my life: RP was very real now. I had no choice but to face the fact: I was going blind.
I didn’t even like to hear those words. I could still see, for goodness’ sake. Yes, blurrily. But I could still see. It didn’t compute. I went to some sessions provided by the Office for the Blind. There, I was given a white cane and the proper training in how to use it. I took the cane home and promptly put it in my closet. A white cane wasn’t me. I could still see. Yes, blurrily. But I could see.
I kept repeating this because they say things sink in if you repeat them three times. Maybe if I repeated it one hundred times, I wouldn’t be a blind person.
‘No,’ a good friend told me,
you aren’t completely blind, but you are legally blind, and you don’t see very well at all. You can’t read regular books anymore, you can’t read your mail or signs, you have to use magnifiers, you walk slower because you can’t see where you’re going, you can’t recognise familiar faces anymore, you can only see a few lights at night, and they gave you a white cane. That’s what legally blind is.
Although I spent the next ten years without art, I still found ways to create. I was born an artist: stories, poetry, articles, screenplays, a lover of music and film. During these ten years, writing replaced art, and became my primary way to create. I wrote short stories, poetry, and screenplays. I’d put art away, on some mental shelf, resigned to the fact that I could no longer sketch or draw. Writing took over. My creativity couldn’t be contained: like water gushing up through a geyser, it had to go somewhere.
It wasn’t until I was fifty that art was resurrected in my life, and all because of a forty-seven-inch computer monitor that my son gave me for Christmas. The computer became my eyes, my way to see a world that had become a blur; it gave me big photographs of my family and friends, big words that I could read, big movies to watch.
It was then I realised how much vision I’d lost over the years. What had I been missing? Were my granddaughter’s eyes really that blue? Did my grandson really look that much like his dad? Did my grandparents really have that many wrinkles? The computer and monitor gave me a way of seeing that I had never expected. And more than that, it gave art back to me. Dare I say it, the computer became an extension of my artistic personality. On the computer, I could make digital art with a mouse, scan in old sketches to use for cover art, look at reference photos, and sketch with a black Sharpie. Visual art had returned to me, like a long lost friend. In a way, it was my prosthetic. I couldn’t create art without it. My visual impairment had again created a style of art I could never have imagined before. My images began to look even more like graphic novels. I began to add poetry, dialogue, and captions to create one-page comics and greeting cards.
When I discovered the basic Microsoft Paint program, I thought I was in heaven. With just a few clicks of my mouse, I could draw straight lines, make perfect circles, and compose abstract paintings that I couldn’t do on paper or canvas because I couldn’t see well enough. Once I form the picture in my head, my mouse helps me bring it to life. Besides abstract digital paintings, my mouse helps me create digital landscapes, animals, and faces and figures.
Drawing with a computer is different from drawing by hand, but just as enjoyable. When drawing with a computer, the colours are vibrant, and shapes are more precise. If I want to make cover art depicting a red barn, a pond, and a sheep, I know I can do this on my computer with basic geometric shapes. I can’t say that I preferred one over the other, because they’re so different from each other, and I still achieved good results. I realised that my computer allowed me to draw in a way that had never been possible with a pencil. Sometimes I miss sketching with a pencil, that feeling of satisfaction after finishing a sketch I had created “the old-fashioned way”, but I never felt deprived of art. I have those sketches somewhere, a lot of them on my computer, and now they’re for other people to enjoy.
Like finger painting, digital painting was another art form born of my visual impairment. My digital paintings have been used in a number of ways, including in art and literary journals, and as cover art for audio books. I painted over seven hundred pictures in less than a year, and uploaded them all to my website. It was a flurry of acrylic and paper, and I enjoyed the attention from other artists, art publications, and those who liked and purchased my work. Most of the feedback was good, but after I’d passed the seven hundred mark I didn’t feel the need to make more.
I may make more finger paintings, but right now I’m very happy with the ones I’ve done already. How exciting it is to know that there isn’t just one kind of art, nor is there only one way to make it. They say necessity is the mother of invention. I needed to create, and the computer showed me how.
Tammy Ruggles is a is a writer and artist based in Kentucky in the US. Her first paperback book, Peace, was published by Clear Light Books in 2005.