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First Published Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

STILL PAINTING John Bramblitt, an artist, became completely blind in 2001. “It wasn’t until I lost my sight that I became brave enough to fail,” he said.

Published: February 16, 2009

The faces in John Bramblitt’s paintings peer out through their canvases like hazy daydreams — apparitions that make it all the more astounding that the artist is blind.

Mr. Bramblitt, 37, lost his vision gradually over about 20 years, becoming completely blind in 2001. The exact cause is not clear, but Mr. Bramblitt, who lives in Dallas, suspects that it resulted from years of brain seizures that began at age 2, leading to a diagnosis of epilepsy.

As he grew older, the seizures became more and more frequent and changed in character — from tonic-clonic, which causes a loss of consciousness and violent twitching, to partial, in which the patient remains conscious but cannot function for a few moments.

“There would be months I’d have so many seizures I couldn’t count them,” Mr. Bramblitt said in an interview.

At first, his vision would become blurry but eventually clear up. With time, however, it cleared up less and less after each episode, until he could no longer see.

Dr. Alan Ettinger, vice chairman of neurology at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, says he has never had a patient who became blind because of epilepsy. “If there is some relationship, it is extraordinarily unusual,” he said. Still, he added that if the seizures were related to a decreased flow of blood to the brain, that could have affected the visual centers.

Mr. Bramblitt says that once he started to lose his vision, his immediate goal was to make the best of his situation, partly because of the cost of seeing multiple neurologists.

“The focus was more on trying to retain as much vision as I could,” he said. “And once it was gone, the focus switched to learning to adapt.”

Mr. Bramblitt continued taking classes at the University of North Texas as his condition would allow, and eventually he graduated with a degree in English. But he became depressed. All his life, he had loved to draw and write, and blindness had robbed him of his creative outlets. “I had to learn a new way to write,” he said. “And drawing just seemed silly. The idea of a blind person drawing just didn’t make any sense.”

Another frustration that developed over time was Mr. Bramblitt’s sense that his family could not understand how he “saw” the world in spite of his blindness.

“I didn’t so much lose my sight as I lost my freedom,” he said. “I was trapped in my own head.”

Determined to get his vision back in some way, Mr. Bramblitt picked up a bottle of white glue and began to draw outlines that he could feel with his fingers once the glue dried. He soon switched to a paint product that dried more quickly, and he learned to distinguish between different shades of oil paint based on their texture and viscosity.

“It wasn’t until I lost my sight that I became brave enough to fail,” he said. “Even if the paintings didn’t look good, I didn’t have to see them.”

The paintings that once took Mr. Bramblitt 14 hours to complete were now coming to him faster. With increasing concentration and focus, his work became bolder and more vivid — a way for him to show others the colors and shapes he now perceived.

And while it is still unclear whether Mr. Bramblitt’s epilepsy caused his blindness, his blindness, it seems, has improved his epilepsy.

Many people with epilepsy perceive auras before the onset of a seizure. These auras may take the form of sensing a bitter taste, visualizing bright colors or smelling an odor that isn’t there. For Mr. Bramblitt, the focus required to work on his paintings allowed him to begin noticing his auras — a smell like burnt popcorn — further in advance of a seizure. This gave him a chance to sit down and relax, making the seizures feel less intense.

Over time, the seizures have become less frequent and have improved to the point where Mr. Bramblitt no longer takes antiseizure medication. He credits his improvement to his art: painting has taught him to live in the moment, he says, and stay calm through stressful situations.

“I’m not an advocate for anybody getting off their seizure medications,” he said, “unless it’s just a good thing for them.”

Some of Mr. Bramblitt’s paintings are being shown in small galleries in Salt Lake City and Pittsburgh. His most recent work includes song lyrics written in Braille among the colors and faces on his canvases, which he invites viewers (including those who aren’t blind) to touch and feel.

Along with this success has come quiet confidence and acceptance. “I don’t think of myself as being a blind person or an epileptic,” Mr. Bramblitt said. “It’s just another aspect of who I am.”

He may never regain his vision, but he no longer views his blindness as a handicap. “Life for me now,” he said, “is way more colorful than it ever was.”

Source:   http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/health/17voic.html?_r=1&ref=health

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