Line of Sight
Denton is a Texas town with a village green and an old county courthouse. John Bramblitt lives about a mile out. I interviewed him in his studio then took him to lunch downtown. He rode shotgun, calling out directions. Turn right here. Go past the Sonic and make a left.
"You missed the turn."
I miss turns all the time. But I had to ask him how he knew I'd missed this one. John Bramblitt cannot see.
"You went over the bump," he said. "The bumps are how I know my way around. I get lost when they repave the road."
I get lost when they repave the road. No matter how well we think we know our way around our craft -- every time we take on a new creative job, they repave the road.
We live in an age of back stories. Every artist seems to have a tale of struggle and adversity and early misfortune. The penniless single mom in Edinburgh writing Harry Potter
while the other hand rocked the baby carriage. The singer-songwriter abused as a child. The cancer survivor. The heroin survivor. The string of bad boyfriends survivor. It does wonders for the brand. It's not the art anymore -- it's the artist's back story.
But it is
the art. In the 1990s an Australian pianist named David Helfgott became an international sensation after Geoffrey Rush played him in Shine
. Crippled by mental illness, written off by one and all, a man gets a second chance when the love of a woman gives him the boost he needs to tackle the dreaded "Rack 3" -- Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto. Shine
was a wonderful triumph-of-the-human-spirit story, and Helfgott won himself a concert tour. People came to hear him play. He was good, but he couldn't hold a candle to the greats. The triumph was personal -- remarkable -- but there were far better pianists out there. And Helfgott's star faded.
There's a lot of back story to Bramblitt, a painter who'd never painted before he became blind and now shows and sells his paintings, speaks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
and has published two books on painting and how he sees the world. I don't know where his art stands in the whole vast configuration of things. I do know that I've interviewed hundreds of people over the years, and John Bramblitt gave me my one, and so far only, experience of sitting in a room with a genius.
I heard about him while freelancing for "My Generation," a series produced by AARP for air on PBS
. Doug Vollmayer, then a production assistant researching story ideas, found Bramblitt on the Internet and passed the word to showrunner David Pepper and senior producer Karen Ryan. They offered the story to me. I'd been producing for the show since its first season, in 2008, doing four- to seven-minute segments on feelgood stories like the curative powers of qi gong, an African-American Avon lady with a 50-year career, and a former prizefighter who teaches life skills based on the principles of boxing. Every job is different. Every job is the first time. I wanted to do this one.
So I wound up outside the Bramblitt house one morning shaking hands with my crew, Nigel McGregor and Jason Meyers. Nigel and Jason are both from the Dallas-Fort Worth part of the world, and this was our first meeting.
It's great but not essential to work with people you've worked with before. A first time with a crew -- shake hands and get to work -- does make for less telepathy at the outset. But you speak the same language and you get going and people start asking how long you've been working together.
"Since this morning."
The artist greeted us at the door. I'd seen pictures of him and we'd spoken over the phone so I knew what to expect. The man -- doesn't look his 40 years. Voice -- velvet. Hair -- British rock invasion. Dog -- Echo, a black lab. No barking. Bramblitt explained that guide dogs don't do watchdog. And that Echo comes from generations of guide dogs, like all the good ones. I could tell I was going to learn a few things today.
First up, interview. I didn't have a clue as to whether I'd try to design the piece as a mix of soundbites and voice-over or let Bramblitt tell it all in his own words. I love voice-over. It can position the story and move it along and get you right where you need to be to give the subject the last word (if that's what you want). But it comes at the cost of intimacy. On the other hand, a subject who can tell his or her story in full, tell the audience everything they need to know -- that's a rare thing. As soon as Bramblitt started talking I thought I just might have that rare thing.
He's a natural storyteller. A Texas native. Epileptic since childhood. An art student who could draw but had never used color until epilepsy stole his sight when he was 30. "My eyes are perfect but the part of my brain that makes the images just doesn't work anymore." Blindness dumped him in what he calls "the deepest darkest hole," and he imagined only two ways out -- suicide or art.
He knew the art would have to be of a kind he hadn't practiced before. An art made possible by his sense of touch. He started with a quick-drying paint normally used to make tie-dyed shirts. It comes with a pointy applicator and leaves a raised line. He taught himself to draw all over again, using his fingertips to read and correct the lines he'd drawn. Then he moved to color. He was working with oils when he discovered that every shade has its own texture.
John works to mix his colors by feel rather than by sight. Every color, every mix of colors, has a precise feel, a specific texture.
"If I'm working with black it'll be runny almost like oil and if I'm working with titanium white it's like toothpaste. So if I want a gray halfway between, I just mix for a texture that's halfway between that really loose feeling and that really thick feeling." Bramblitt says there are 200 receptors in the human fingertip. He Brailles his tubes of paint. He keeps, like many a sighted painter, an orderly palette. And that's how he tells his colors.
He paints an awful lot of eyes. Pairs of eyes. Eyes in faces. Bramblitt's portraits -- his speciality -- are more than good likenesses. They're lightning in a bottle. How he pulls it off is something of a mystery and I suspect that's true of any good artist. But if your artist is blind and you're tasked with telling his story, you've got to convince your audience he's for real.
I'd started thinking hard about this a couple of days before flying to Texas. (Having a shoot coming up is like facing a firing squad in the morning. Like the man said, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.)
I called ahead to ask Bramblitt to paint something for the camera -- something he could finish by the end of my Day 2 in Denton. It's hard to complete a painting in so short a time so he got a head start. Using his special paint, he produced a raised-paint drawing of his three-year-old son, Jack.
John considers angles and shading as he imagines what his son Jack looks like.
Son, Jack watches his father bring his own image to the canvas. Bramblitt often paints portraits of his son, whom he has never seen.
We then put dad to work at his easel, documenting his progress while Echo lay at his feet giving off that sad weary vibe of guide dogs everywhere. Nigel covered the action from as many angles as we could come up with. Meanwhile young Jack emerged from the canvas in all his fauvist glory.
The artist executed this portrait of his son over a two-day shoot.
Blindness seems to have flooded Bramblitt's inner vision with colors no longer limited to the physics of light. "Coffee for me is orange. I know it isn't orange -- it's black or brown but it's bitter and bitter is orange to me. But if I add sugar to the coffee it turns yellow. And if I add milk it turns blue." There's a bit of synesthesia in all of us but Bramblitt sees music as he never did when he was sighted. "For me a D-note is always red. I see red when I hear a D." He's not alone among visual artists in listening to music while he works. But when the music changes he sees the walls change color. As if he's always tripping, and it's always the first hour.
I'm amazed that an artist, any artist, can look at what she's painting then direct her eyes back at the canvas and paint a memory -- even so fresh a memory. Bramblitt's memory is long. He feels a face and builds a three-dimensional model in his mind. Once that's done, the subject can walk away. (The only time Jack ever "sat" for us -- he was pretty fidgety -- was when his father showed us how he feels a face to see it in his mind.) If, in a painting, "I want somebody to look to the left or to the right, I don't have to have that person actually do that because I have this 3D model." And the model sticks. "Someone whose face I felt five years ago -- I can still paint them. And they never age, which is a great thing."
This ability to see with the hands and pass it on to the rest of the world -- it's got to be part of any conversation about a Bramblitt painting.. His very special art has brought him the recognition, the buyers, the emails that fill his inbox, the invitations to speak at the Met and the producers who come to Denton and ask him to do the same thing over and over again for the camera. But are these the things that get him through the night? I don't think so. I think it's the painting.
"Painting," Bramblitt said, "forces you to live brushstroke to brushstroke. You're not thinking about what happened in the past. You're not thinking about what you might have lost. You're only thinking about that one moment."
I always listen for a couple of lines I can put at the head of a piece -- lines that have a way of saying what it's about and why anybody should care. I don't always get them. But the second I heard Bramblitt talk about the brushstrokes I knew I'd been handed what I wanted.
I don't read from notes in an interview. I don't bring questions sets or write things down as we go because I don't like to divide my attention like that. I try to imagine that you and I have just met on a train or plane and I'm listening for the sake of two people. I'm one of those two people. The other is an absent third party and I'm methodically gathering information for that guy because he's the audience and he'll be coming to the story cold. In that sense my attention really is divided. I'm thinking about that other guy and what he needs to know and what I need to get you to say so it all makes sense.
When I got Bramblitt talking about how he paints I had the audience very much in mind. But when he talked about his first year of blindness, about hitting bottom and starting his climb back up, I was listening for me -- enthralled by this man who'd been to the abyss and lived to tell the tale.
"I felt like I had no worth anymore," Bramblitt said. "Like my life was zero. Whenever you lose your eyesight there is a disconnect with people. I wanted to let people know that I was still me. That I was still in here."
Great stuff. The question was how to visualize it. We'd been cooped up in the studio for a day and a half and it was time to take the show for a walk. So I used our last hours in Denton to shoot Bramblitt downtown with Echo. Walking. Crossing. Sitting at a sidewalk cafe. As I stood behind Nigel -- he used a long lens to pack the shot -- I had a chance to observe how people steer clear of the blind. They mean well. But there's an avoidance. Look at that woman telling the child to back off. This was the disconnect. This was what it looks like. A man sitting alone behind dark glasses while the world passes him by. A nightmare in broad daylight. That's the shot. That's it.
Cut.Struck blind at 30, John Bramblitt found a way to reconnect with people through his art.
About a year into his blindness, Bramblitt went crazy. He grabbed a raised-paint applicator and started to draw. "I thought, This pretty much makes it official, John. You're crazy." He worked all night on his kitchen floor failing at one attempt after another. At dawn -- the sound of the birds -- he was sitting in a nest of crumpled paper. He had a "weird feeling" in his chest and thought it was a seizure coming on. "Then it occurred to me -- it was hope."
I loved the story when I heard it and kicked myself when I read it. I got back home to DC, read through the transcript and knew what a terrible thing it is to come back without the goods. I didn't have the shot. Couldn't go back to Denton. All right, Mr. Producer, whatcha gonna do now?
Fake it. Stage it. Reenact it. As one who worships at the altar of Errol Morris, I asked myself what the master would do. He'd get himself a pair of hands like Bramblitt's and light them shadowy, for night, because a man who can't see doesn't need a bright kitchen light to work by. Shoot the hands working on the floor with paper and a raised-paint applicator. Shoot them crumpling paper and squishing oil paints (black's runny, white's like toothpaste). I found a match for Bramblitt's hands in Connor Toomy, a web writer for another AARP show. I'm sure I told him the whole thing would take just a couple of hours. He lost a day, ended up with a pair of hands seriously stained black and yellow, and I had all the ingredients to bake my cake.
Except music. I couldn't hire a composer because my client was signed up with Killer Tracks. I'm not complaining -- Killer Tracks is a great resource. I went foraging and found UK-based composer Al Lethbridge, whose music of the spheres gave me three of the four cues in the movie. I usually don't favor wall-to-wall music but this seemed a good time to break that rule. It all came together when editor Scott Newman, working on Avid Media Composer, put the music to work for the pictures, even down to that little girl skipping to the piano at 00:50.
Bramblitt talked about his blindness in words that seemed to echo the 1799 Christian hymn by John Newton, "Amazing Grace." (I once was lost but now am found/ Was blind, but now I see.) But what saved him, and continues to save him, is the work of art. The best escape is the effort it takes to escape -- the sweat and strain of climbing out of that deepest darkest hole he talked about. He didn't stop climbing when he signed his first painting with a pair of O's with X's struck through them. Every day he climbs.
John's signature - a representation of climbing out of the deepest darkest hole of his personal despair - O's with X's struck through them.
"The painters I admire," he told me, "are the ones who work really hard at their craft. They're always coming up with new ways to do something. And when they're done, people say, 'Oh, they're gifted and that's interesting.' I don't know if it's a gift or it's just that they're obsessive. Like if I want to make a certain line or a certain color, I'll work on it forever."
Maybe that's what the Bramblitt example tells the rest of us, we who are gifted -- with the gift of eyesight -- and have it so easy. As long as we're looking for a way to find a way, we're headed in the right direction.
Looking forward with his beautiful wife, Jacqi.
Washington, D.C. USA
Stephen Menick is a two-time Emmy-nominated writer, director, producer and novelist living in Washington, DC. His short documentary on the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. was selected to open the pre-dedication ceremony of the MLK Memorial on the National Mall in 2011. Another documentary, on the Japanese-American experience during World War II, will accompany a Congressional Gold Medal touring exhibit in 2013. More of his work is here: http://vimeo.com/menicktv.