Hi my name is Clarke. I’m blind, and I’m also a visual artist.
Art is my life – from an early age, all I ever wanted to be was an artist. My mum used to say that I could draw before I could walk.
For me, it was escapism because, from the age of 4, I started to lose sight in my right eye. I was going to the hospital every week, getting patches and drops in my good eye in an effort to help, but it never did. I was just left with two blurry eyes.
At that age, art helped me – it was a solitary hobby that turned into a passion. It was what I wanted to do, whether I was a cartoonist, a cartographer or fine artist. I just loved going to art galleries and absorbing the information.
Through the years, life and school took me in a few different directions – I earned a diploma in art and design, as well as a BA honours degree in model-making. I created art as much as I could whilst having a career as a dental model-maker.
Then, at the age of 33, I started to lose sight in my left eye. It felt like the worst thing that could happen to a visual person.
Finding a New Medium
It was hard at the beginning as I tried to figure out my process. I know a lot of visually impaired people paint, but for me I couldn’t engage with that medium as losing colours and detail made it hard for me.
I also realised that traditional art isn’t accessible to visually impaired people – so I wanted my art to be touchable. Deep down, it came from my model-making experiences of working with lots of tactile materials.
I stumbled across textiles. I hadn’t picked up a needle since I was around 10 years old, so I started sewing with wool as it allowed me to really feel the art as I created it.
I can truly say that my art contains blood, sweat and tears because, at the start, I did prick myself.
I use the wool as an artist would use a pencil, and the different textiles became my paint. People with sight use their surroundings or images as their muse – but I chose to use sounds and found that there was a link to what you hear and what you feel.
An Opportunity to Bring Art to a Broader Audience
Two years ago, I was offered an artist residency, which is difficult for someone who is blind to achieve. (Usually that’s for “health and safety” reasons, because they think that if you can’t see, you can’t exit a burning building or climb up steps…)
This opened up lots of new opportunities and possibilities, and I began playing around with sounds and smells with fabric.
In 2019, I did a massive community art project for Portsmouth Festivities called Eye Sea Squares 2020. The idea was to make a large tapestry inspired by the sound of the sea so that, regardless of your visual ability, you could experience the art. More than 1,000 people took part, including five schools. I hosted a variety of related workshops where people of all ages and abilities were encouraged to create abstract tactile art inspired by the sound of the sea on a 20 cm square of fabric. The final piece was over 16 metres long and took 600 hours to sew.
From this, the BBC News did an interview with me and a local gallery gave me the opportunity for my first solo exhibition. It only took 20 years! What was amazing was the amount of visually impaired people visiting and hugging the walls. It was most difficult to convince people to touch the work, as we have always been told that you can’t touch art!
Art in the Age of COVID-19
I teach art classes at a local school that 10 visually impaired students attend. This year it would have been another busy year as I had an exhibition called “Secret Braille Talks” planned, as well as workshops to follow. Plus I was doing an Artsmark Award for a visually impaired charity for young adults.
But due to Covid-19, this has all been postponed. And for someone who is trying to compete in a visual world, momentum is key. In the last two years, I’ve been nominated for best visual artist of the year by the Portsmouth Guide Awards – and I was planning to win it this year (LOL)!
My dream is to exhibit in London (and abroad in New York and San Francisco) and have galleries ask me for commissions. That’s the dream, and I believe I can make it in a competitive art world with my different take on visual art.