TUESDAY, 11 JULY 2023Thinking out of the box can be promoted by many changes in one person’s life. In particular, our brains can adapt through various, unexpected, and creative ways after vision loss*. In this interview, Pauline Kerekes talks to Clarke Reynolds, a visually impaired artist who invented a new form of visual art.
Could you tell us about your story: when did you get interested in art and when did your visual impairment start?
I lost sight on one eye at age 4. Around that time, my local school took me to a gallery that was close by. No one in my family is artistic but as soon as I entered this gallery, I knew I wanted to become a professional artist. I left school at the age of 14 due to kidney problems, got back to school at age 18 and got a diploma in art design and a degree in model making. I soon after found a job as a dental model maker, but after two years I started to get shadows in the other eye and doctors told me that eye was getting blind. That was 11 years ago, and you’d think as a visual artist that would be the worst thing that could happen to you, but for me I thought I would still be an artist and it wouldn’t impact what I want to do. I have a very creative imagination and I thought what only matters are my mind and my hands.
In most cases, visually impaired people can have many different types of residual vision. How is it for you?
Yes, 93% of visually impaired people can actually see, just in different ways compared to sighted people. For instance, some people see at the peripherals, some see in lines, some see better or worse depending on the light conditions. My eyesight is like looking under water with light and shadows mingling together. Every day is different as my eyes adjust to light conditions: when the bright sunlight hits my eyes, they go black. I don’t know what normal sight is as I’ve only had the use of one eye since I’m a young child. I’ve bumped into doorframes a lot, there is no depth perception for me for sure! Even though I did a degree using straight lines and grids for model making I still don’t know what a straight line looks like... I rely on the materials to guide my art. I have 5% of true vision left which is the top right in my left eye, that’s why you see me bobbing my head around as I find the sweet spot!
Would you say you use more your tactile sense than sighted people?
There is a misconception about the acuity of touch in blind people! We are used to move our heads much more when we are blind, and we get what is called early degeneration of the vertebrae in the neck. That results in pins and needles in the fingers. So, my sense of touch is awful, I can’t feel very well at all. For instance, I can hold a very hot cup of tea without feeling it because my fingers are completely numb.
What type of art do you do?
I’ve always been a big fan of pointillism and dots are everywhere in my art. When I explain to people how I see, especially through the right eye, I say it’s like looking at a thousand dots. A few years ago, I learnt Braille and thought: why are dots and Braille not an art form? Since the last 3 years, I’ve been known as the blind Braille artist. I created a colour coded version of Braille. It’s based on the idea of the association between a pattern and a colour, so that the brain immediately thinks about the pattern when seeing the colour. I used colour theory to map out Braille letters. It's 26 colours, one colour per letter. When you see my art, you can decode it by eye with the colours but you can also touch it and decode it using Braille. There’s a narrative in my art. In my last exhibition, called ‘Journey by Dots’, all the dots were neon-lightened and the whole exhibition was in the dark so you’re guided by the dots. My art comes in various sizes as I explore the nature of the patterns. In this last exhibition I painted twenty thousand dots. My aim is to exceed a hundred thousand dots in one piece and even beyond that.
Your work is based on colour theory. How do you perceive colours?
In my life I lost first the ability to see blue and green, that’s normal, these colours are lost first in blind people. Then I lost the ability to see in the red spectrum, however I still have the memory of certain colours like pink. And yellow is the last colour people who are becoming blind can see (and the first colour new-born babies can see, interestingly!). To be able to still work with colours, I trained my brain to recognize tonal differences in the grayscale I see.
Becoming blind enhanced your creativity. This issue of BlueSci is about pushing boundaries, how would you say you push boundaries?
Yes! I had to become blind to start learning Braille as an artistic language. Now that I have lost my sight, I am what people call a ‘disabled artist’ and there is a big stigma attached to disability art in mainstream art. Pushing boundaries in terms of going beyond what society associates with disability: as a disabled artist I want to be recognized alongside people like Antony Gormley or Banksy. Pushing boundaries in terms of gallery accessibility too. A gallery is a creative space and then why should gallery be like libraries where people can’t talk? I want people to be able to talk in front of the art. ‘#talkInFrontOfArt’, that’s what I would say!
What was striking while talking to Clarke was his ever-renewed creativity, not limited by the visual constraints or learnt rules about space or dimensions sighted people usually have. If the essence of an artist is to think out of the box, then the term of disabled artist should be questioned: where is the disability when one can not only reach the level of creativity of other artists, but also create bridges so that anyone can access his art?
Pauline Kerekes is a post-doc in neuroscience at the physiology, development and neuroscience department in Cambridge who helps coordinate the art behind BlueSci. Photo credits to Duncan Shepherd. For more information on Clarke Reynolds, he has a personal website (https://www.seeingwithoutseeing.com) and he hosts a podcast called Art in Sight. Hear him explain his art at https://youtu.be/eZV8lf-mpIY.
*For reference, see the books “An Anthropologist on Mars” and “The Mind’s Eye” by Oliver Sacks.