Calgary-based artist Bruce Horak has created this piece comprised of over 200 portraits titled The Way I See It. It will be featured in the Kelowna Art Gallery through the end of February. He lost one eye to cancer and only has 10 per cent vision in the other eye. Below: Busser Howell's Grey 22

Sight Unseen: The Kelowna Art Gallery opens an exhibition of blind visual artists

Do you need to see to create visual art? Certainly not. Four artists illustrate how the visual part of the brain creates art without sight

  • Fri Jan 11th, 2013 7:00am
  • News

How and why and to what means and ends do we create and share pictures?

It’s a critical question for humanity, forming the basis of communication, how we understand history (from cavemen forward), how we share what’s happening in the world around us, and how we enjoy and explore that world.

And for the next two months, four artists in the Kelowna Art Gallery will turn our understanding of this process on its head, showing us that there is more to an object than the lines that make up the whole, and more to arts and than the average person might consider.

Curated by local visually impaired artists Ruth Bieber, the show features Okanagan artist P.J. Lockhart, Japanese-German artist Eriko Watanabe, New Yorker Busser Howell and Calgarian Bruce Horak, who all exhibit a different angle on what it means to create art with a visual impairment and why their window on our world is critical for everyone.

“We think we see with our eyes. Sighted people can’t get beyond that,” said Howell. “But really you see in your brain. Your eye is nothing more to you than the lens is to a camera.”

Busser HowellHowell explains that he works from his visual cortex, or his mind’s eye, if you will.

He started to lose his eyes as a teenager, but has still amassed a stunning curriculum vitae. Showing in top galleries across the United States, he has worked as a sighted artist and as an artist who is legally blind. He lost his sight completely at age 40.

Nevertheless, his art has shown in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as part of the National Exhibit for the Blind, and the Smithsonian in Washington, DC in an exhibit entitled Revealing Culture. Covering everything from imaginary dancers to 9/11 to the state of American politics, he’s never afraid to tackle a new subject. At the moment, he’s working on a series about mediation.

He doesn’t work by touch and he doesn’t wander around wanting to feel everything as the sighted community seems to believe, he said. In fact, he is decidedly repulsed by much of the art he’s allowed to run his fingers over, noting American museums are far behind European, limiting the visually impaired to tactic representations that are often a pale, if not embarrassing, recreation of original works.

He has just written a book explaining how he feels entitled Blind Side, which will be released on Amazon Books.

It features 68 images by blind artists, from sculptors to painters, and attempts to dispel many of the myths about living with visual impairments, as well as showcase the artists’ work.

In addition to not being entirely touch-oriented, Howell says being blind doesn’t make your other senses stronger. In fact, it’s often just the opposite. The visual and auditory centres in the brain are in close proximity so often, if one is damaged, the other will be too.

And visual impairment does not have to be a problem for those who want to work as visual arists, in his view. Losing his sight has opened the door to a new vision for his art. Where he used to rigidly try to hide his visual impairment, producing exacting images, he had to give up this marriage to representational form when he lost his sight.

Today, he uses texture, pays impeccable attention to materials and allows his creativity to run wild. It does not matter where an eye or nose lands on his canvas or if he paints in green with orange hair. He isn’t trying to make it a replica of reality anyway.

Eriko WanatabeEriko Watanabe knows exactly what this means; although her challenge is to bring the world into her entirely visionless reality. Born in Japan, schooled in library sciences at UBC and living in Germany with her husband, she is revolutionizing the art world, carving a niche in art history that’s all her own.

Her work is considered so groundbreaking, University of Toronto professor John Kennedy believes she could very well land up in the British Museum by the time her career develops.

He explains that where cavemen discovered how to do representations by using a line to replicate the outer edge of an object, Watanabe appears to be one of the first artists in the world—and the only current artist—who is using lines to represent what is going on inside the object, continuing to challenge representations of two dimensions and three dimensions to produce things like emotion, sound and visual image all at once.

“When a blind person is making pictures, the language part of their brain is totally silent and the visual part lights up,” said Kennedy, pointing out it’s the same for Watanabe, even though she’s never seen out of her eyes and, therefore, has no visual experience to draw on.

This is both an amazing discovery and a difficult experience for her to relay as it means she has had to learn from feel and description what dimensions and geography are all about.

As Watanabe describes it, as a child she once traced a piece of art with tactile ink and determined it was a person lying down. Because the person was lying on the table in front of her, she assumed they were meant to be shown lying down; but she was soon corrected and told the person was, in fact, standing in the picture.

This opened a floodgate of queries she grapples with in her art today as she tries to ascertain, for example, what makes a tall tree a tree in a drawing or a building a building if she cannot see it to recreate it.

Her experience of the world is unique, but so too are the experiences of sighted people.

Eriko Wanatabe's artWhen she wants to draw herself contemplating life over a cup of coffee, she uses lines to draw the coffee cup, but also a swirl of lines to equally represent her thoughts roaming the universe in the same way anyone’s thoughts would be doing as they shared in that experience.

There was an artist in the 1800s who drew a wheel with the spokes as swirls to represent movement. His thoughts spawned comic book drawings with lines for actions. Watanabe is now using line to represent sound, emotion and other dimensions, Kennedy explained.It’s basically the next step.

Using a drawing kit of a silicone pad, similar to a baking sheet, and a plastic-type paper, she sketches out bumpy, Braille-like images.

“I’m more of a hobby artist,” she said, explaining her day job is in public relations. “What I try to do is transfer what I perceive through my senses.”

In the case of her first taste of habanero chili, that meant drawing the chili bowl, followed by the explosion she felt in her mouth, a feverish series of lines, and the dizziness that followed in her head, weak lines around the outside of the page.

“I have moved away from attempts to make visually correct pictures,” she said. “This way my pictures can be authentic.”

To learn more:

Just Imagine will open in the Kelowna Art Gallery, 1315 Water St., this evening, Friday, Jan. 11, from 7 to 9 p.m., with a reception funded by the Vancouver Foundation and Central Okanagan Foundation.

• On Saturday, Jan. 12 a panel discussion, Art Beyond Sight, will be held at the gallery with curator and visual artist Ruth Bieber, artists Bruce Horak, Busser Howell and Eriko Watanabe and professor John Kennedy

• Bruce Horak will teach a special seminar for the regular KAG Family Sunday on Jan. 13 on drawing faces