Painting allows blind artist to see a world of color

Story highlights

  • John Bramblitt lost his sight while in college due to complications from epilepsy and Lyme disease
  • He found a new purpose in learning how to paint

(CNN)John Bramblitt believes he could draw before he could walk. Drawing and illustrating just clicked with him from the beginning, but he also loved telling stories with words. He would share his written stories with his family and friends, but the art remained personal.

Art was also his way of coping with spending much of his childhood in the hospital. After experiencing his first seizure at age 2, Bramblitt was diagnosed with severe epilepsy. By the time he was 7, he'd had surgery to remove his left kidney. Doctors believed that renal failure was causing his seizures, but he continued to have seizures.
    To cope, he turned to drawing. "Art was a great way to deal with a bad day and celebrate a good day," said Bramblitt, now 41.
    At age 11, Bramblitt suffered a troubling number of seizures, more than ever. After nearly four years, he was diagnosed with Lyme disease.
    He began a new treatment for epilepsy in an effort to control his seizures at the same time he began treatment for Lyme disease. It caused the seizures to increase in magnitude. During each, his heart and breathing would stop, causing irreparable damage.
    He experienced some hearing loss, and after each seizure, his vision would remain blurry for a while, but then it would clear up, he said. What neither he nor his doctors realized was that his vision was decreasing each time. The cascading temporal lobe seizures, which begin in the front of the brain and cascade toward the back, had the same effect as a hit to the back of the head over and over. His occipital lobe, known as the visual processing center of the brain, suffered from these severe, repeated attacks.
    This process unfolded from his adolescence into college, where he majored in English with the hopes of becoming a creative writing teacher. Worried that he would be perceived differently than the other students, Bramblitt didn't tell his professors about his epilepsy or the seizures. Although he was a good student, he would often miss class because of his seizures and the issues that followed.
    Feeling that school wasn't for him, he dropped out of college for several years to work on computers. But after a time, Bramblitt realized he had taken the wrong path and went back to school.

    Descending into darkness

    Bramblitt thought that if he could control the seizures, his vision would return to normal. But in his mid-20s, while attending college for the second time at the University of North Texas in 2001, he received the news that he would lose the rest of his vision. There was nothing doctors could do to stop it.
    "I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach," he said. "And then I thought my life was over. It wasn't 'oh, poor me,' it was doing the math in my head. I thought, 'I'm an epileptic; now I'm blind. If I try as hard as I can, maybe I won't be a burden to my family.' "
    His eye doctor reassured him that with technology and orientation and mobility training, he would be able to travel, work any job and do anything else he wanted with his life. Bramblitt thought it was a nice lie.
    He was completely blind by the time fall semester began. He worked with the disability office on campus to arrange for a guide who could help direct him to his classes. He threw himself into learning Braille, how to cook without burning himself and how to navigate campus in new ways.
    Although he was encouraged by each new thing he accomplished, Bramblitt was equally frustrated by what he couldn't do. He was slow at reading Braille, and the software he used to write papers for class had a stark, technical voice that threw him off. But most of all, he still felt like a burden to his supportive family and friends.
    "Deep down, I was so depressed and angry," he said. "Even though I was around people I had known all my life, they didn't understand how I related to the world anymore. They weren't sure how to relate to me anymore, and I didn't know how to relate to myself. It's an isolating and scary thing. I went to school with ideas and dreams and shifted my sole focus to not being a burden, which was just a depressing place to live."
    Bramblitt began to gain confidence when he was able to go from using a guide to guiding himself across campus with the aid of a seeing-eye dog and a cane. But when he was alone, he felt like he was losing his mind. That's when he remembered the joy he used to gain from creating art.
    He began by trying to draw simple shapes, but would feel his pencil run off the paper. Bramblitt realized he needed to create a structure to follow. Fabric paint, which would create raised lines as it dried, became his new pencil, and he used oil paints to bring the paintings to life.
    Using a cane to touch the ground and his hands to learn his new way through the world had transformed Bramblitt's photographic-like memory into more of a "touch to sight" memory. He could touch different parts of something, connect them in his mind and be able to "see" what he was touching in his mind, a technique known as haptic visualization.
    He used this to "see" what he wanted to paint and to distinguish between oil paints, because each color had a different viscosity and texture. Encouraged by the way it made him feel, he would paint for hours every day.
    Going blind changed Bramblitt's perception of art, but he's convinced that it's for the better.
    "When I was sighted, if the drawing looked like the person, I would think it was good," he said. "I still want them to look like themselves, but I became so interested in perception and trying to go beyond the skin and bones of someone and get down to what is the essence of that person and what makes them who they are. And that's what I try to do with color, by putting that emotion and feeling in and capturing what they were like in that moment. It's forced me to be more present."

    Finding the light

    For months, art was his secret outlet, and for the first time since going blind, Bramblitt began to feel hopeful again. It was his white seeing-eye dog, Ann, who let his friends in on the secret: They began noticing little patches of purple, blue or green on her fur. Bramblitt had feared judgment, being a blind man teaching himself to paint, but his friends were excited to see how happy it made him.
    "Art is this wonderful thing that forces you to focus on the creative and what you can do," he said. "It doesn't matter what you can't do. You have an idea, and you figure out ways how to make that idea come true. You get in this habit of thinking in a positive and creative way. When I'm painting, I'm only thinking about the end of that brush, and it puts me in that moment. It's a much calmer, happier place to be."
    Bramblitt began showing his art at a local art cafe as well as a gallery at the university. At first, he would stand off to the side and didn't tell anyone he was blind. Soon, he realized that he didn't have to hide it, and he was able to open up and talk about what the pieces meant to him.
    Although Bramblitt is an artist full-time now, he hasn't turned his back on writing. He wrote a book about his journey called "Shouting in the Dark." Over the years, Bramblitt has connected with charities and started a series of workshops for artists with and without sight, young and old. He believes art should be something everyone can connect with and works with museums to make them more accessible for all. After all, art changed his life.
    A few years after losing his sight, a friend invited Bramblitt to meet a girl at a wrap party, where the university's student newspaper staff celebrated the last paper of the semester. Instead, he ended up meeting the host, who studied journalism but had also received a degree in art.
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    "Jacqi was just the sweetest, nicest and funniest person," Bramblitt recalled. "She was brilliant, and I immediately wanted to be friends with her. We hung out and talked that night, and we've been hanging out ever since."
    Next year, the couple will have been married for 10 years. They live in Denton, Texas, and have an 8-year-old son, Jack. And thanks to treatment, Bramblitt's epilepsy is manageable.
    His family has changed Bramblitt's life.
    "I thought I understood what color was until my son was born," he said. "I was able to feel my son's face the moment after he was born and see what he looked like. Without these touch techniques from painting, I wouldn't have been able to do that. And whenever I did that, the colors in my mind would just explode, and all of my paintings got so much brighter after that. If you would have told me 15 years ago that I would have so much love and color in my life, I would have thought you were crazy. I'm still blind and still epileptic, but I'm happier than I've ever been in my life."