Fresh Paint

By Tammy Ruggles

Fresh Paint

“I can’t even see well enough to paint my fingernails, let alone finger paint pictures,” I thought to myself after a Facebook friend of mine, Sonja, suggested that I try finger painting.

I’m legally blind due to a lifelong visual impairment, Retinitis Pigmentosa, and I used to do pretty decent sketches of celebrities with a black Sharpie up until about this spring, but lost the ability to capture details, so I pretty much gave up on the idea of continuing art as a hobby, something I’d done since the age of twelve.

“You can do it intuitively.”

I knew all about intuition. Growing up with RP, I am completely blind at night, so have had to rely on my intuition my entire life – from finding my toddler son’s hand at night if he had a bad dream, to “hearing” the smile in my grandchildren’s voices when they were happy about something.

So, using intuition to finger paint? I was unsure. Painting is such a visual act. Don’t you have to see what you’re painting? Don’t you have to see to mix colors? Don’t you have to see to know if you’re placing shadows and shading correctly?

Well, yes and no. Yes, if you’re talking about painting from a reference image, like a photograph or a dirt road right in front of you. But, no, if you’re talking about painting the images you see in your mind’s eye, by imagination and memory.

What I see are blurry colors, but my fingertips know how to make the shape of a cabin, and my art training (four years of high school art and two to three more years in college) remembers instinctively to put shadows and light in the places they belong.

I was afraid to try finger painting. Afraid that it would be a joke. Afraid people would laugh, or scoff, or worse – pity.

But I’ve never thought of myself as a quitter. Having RP sort of taught me that, when the world pushes at you, push back, with respect.

So, without telling anyone what I was doing, I got some finger paint and some paper, and let my fingers make the art that I saw in my head, from flowers to shacks to fields – images I recalled living in rural Kentucky growing up.

They looked blurry to me. I couldn’t tell what they looked like. I hoped that the post on the porch reached from the roof to the porch, but I couldn’t see if it did. It was largely guesswork, and, like Sonja said, intuition.

I didn’t expect it to be perfect, and was told that it wasn’t, but that it had a natural style that was appealing. Other reactions were what I had first expected: “Nice try, but it doesn’t look right.”

Honestly, I was amazed I could make any pictures at all, because I’d only painted one picture before, and it was with a brush. I still have it.

I think I decided to continue to paint when my high school art teacher “Liked” my pictures on Facebook. The landscapes and flowers were vastly different from the Sharpie sketches I’d done of celebrities, but I really enjoyed my new ability.

After I lost my child/adult protection social worker job due to RP, I turned to freelance writing as a second career. Was it possible to do the same thing with art? It was a past-time that I dearly loved doing with all of my heart, but could I make a profession of it?

As I did with writing, the only way to find out was to try, so I went to a local gallery and showed a few of my finger paintings. The feedback from the artists was positive, and I was invited to submit a few to some of their shows, which I did.

The real test, however, was when I decided to have my own art sale on the corner of the block where I lived. I’d been painting steadily for a few weeks now and had dozens to offer.

Only two of those sold, and they were two of the bigger ones on canvas, but I was so happy. To me, this was the validation I’d been looking for.

I know my technique isn’t technically accurate, and I lament that a little, remembering back to a time when I could see well enough to tell if I’d gotten the perspective right. A lot of it is pure instinct, doing what I think looks right but never knowing for sure. I see well enough to mix blue and green together to get the color of ocean I want, but I never know how it looks on the canvas.

Recently a gallery owner from Cincinnati called me and invited me to visit his gallery and talk to him about including some of my finger paintings in their next exhibit.

I was so proud. Not so much of my finger paintings, but of the fact that I had pushed myself just a little, and something great and unexpected happened.

Because of that small step forward that I had taken when I felt weak and discouraged, I could now show the world that the blind and visually impaired could not only create and enjoy art, but actually make a profession of it.

I’m not sure where art will take me, but I’m willing to go. Already art has enabled me to reach out to others, just as I did as a social worker, just as I did as a freelance writer. I taught a finger painting class to kids at a community outreach program, and was invited to speak to a group of art teachers on how to teach art to blind and visually impaired students.

This is the real meaning of art. I want to make art that touches people and causes them to feel an emotion – whether it’s nostalgia from a family home place they recall or the natural energy they feel when they look at the ocean or the simple beauty of a flower.

But most of all, I want to make art that causes people to look inside themselves and reach for something they think is beyond their reach.

About this writer

  • Tammy Ruggles Tammy Ruggles is a legally blind freelance writer and finger painter who lives in Kentucky. She enjoys cooking, audiobooks and spending time with family and friends.

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2 Responses to “Fresh Paint”

  1. Tammy–What an inspiring story. Chicken Soup for the Soul is looking for stories about overcoming obstacles. If you haven’t submitted a story for that anthology, perhaps you should…

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