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Speak Out: Pure Harmony

By Tammy Ruggles
ART TIMES August online 2013

Red Cabin by Tammy Ruggles
“Red Cabin by the Water” by Tammy Ruggles

When you think of visual art, you probably think that the artist who created the image has perfect sight, or, at the very least, works with corrective lenses. You wouldn’t assume that the person behind the picture is legally blind or has vision of 20/400, or will lose even more sight as time goes by, but that is the case with me.

I’ve had Retinitis Pigmentosa since birth, and it’s an eye disease that robs your sight over time. As a little girl growing up on a Kentucky farm, I didn’t seem to notice it and it didn’t seem to bother me. I was so used to it that it was just a part of who I was. I always wore glasses, I always held books up close to my eyes, I always put my head down close to my paper to draw. With help from Office For The Blind, I went to college to be a social worker, my chosen profession, and also took writing and art classes as electives.

As I grew older, RP took more vision away from me. I adapted, by wearing magnifying glasses around my neck, enlarging the font on my computer, and reading large-print books, but by the age of 40, my retinas had deteriorated to the point that I was legally blind. I lost my social work position, I lost my driver’s license, and I lost my identity.

What I cannot do any longer, however, is draw or sketch, and I used to do pretty decent celebrity portraits with a black Sharpie, because I could see best in high contrast. The closest comparison I can come to would be artist Shawn Martinbrough, of Batman noir comic fame.

Feeling utterly disgusted by my inability to see or sketch details, I was ready to turn my Sharpie in. People were telling me that my portraits weren’t as good as they had been before.

Red Cabin by Tammy Ruggles
“People Walking to Work” by Tammy Ruggles

But just when I was prepared to quit in April of this year, a Facebook friend named Sonja suggested I try finger painting, because it was something I could do intuitively.

As a legally blind person, I understood intuition very well, because I used it to do things in the world, but I doubted that I could actually finger paint, because I had only one painting to my name, “Yellow Flower”, and I’d done it with a brush. I wasn’t a painter of any sort. I was a sketcher.

A legally blind finger painter?

But I gave it a try, moving my fingers in the directions I thought they should go to make the shapes and forms, and it worked. I can’t really see all that I’m doing. I rely more on instinct, imagination, and memory to paint my pictures. I know my finger paintings miss the mark when it comes to perfect angles, perspective, and other elements, but I trade perfection for the joy and pure harmony I express when I paint images I recall from my childhood in Kentucky.

I paint with the viewer in mind. I want the viewer to feel something when they look at a picture of mine, whether it’s a fond memory of a childhood home, or the connection they feel with nature, or pleasure from an abstract idea.

(Tammy Ruggles, BSW, MA, lives in Tollesboro, Ky.)

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