Valdosta Daily Times

February 7, 2013

Non-Visual Art

Blind artist creates masterpieces of soul

Brittany D. McClure
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Aristotle once said that “the aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” Art does not have to be perfect, does not have to resemble and does not have to be done in a conscious vision of a manifestation of an existing object. Art, by its very nature, is an objective of emotion.

Seventeen-year-old Valdosta High School junior Shaneka James doesn’t paint what she sees, she paints what she feels.

James is blind.

“I want to learn how to be proficient in painting,” said James.

James was born with a condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity — a disease that affects prematurely born babies who have received intensive neonatal care and is thought to be caused by disorganized growth of retinal blood vessels.

“I’ve always been without (sight) ... But I can see light,” said James.

That’s how she knows the sun is yellow and happy, because she can see the light that it projects on the world. Being able to distinguish light plays a large role in James’ love of the outdoors.

“I love being outside,” said James.

Like the sun, James projects her own light. Upon meeting her, the first thing you notice is not her walking stick, not her hearing aid, but the smile that never leaves her face while she talks.

“She’s a wonderful student to teach,” said VHS art teacher Jo-Ann Adams. “She’s an amazing, young lady.”

This is James’ second year at VHS, but not her first experience in a public school. For grades kindergarten through sixth, James attended school in the Valdosta City School System.

“Then I left and went to the Georgia Academy for the Blind in Macon for four years,” said James.

James started VHS last year at the beginning of her sophomore year. Like any new high school student, she found the large campus overwhelming.

“The (blind) academy is a lot smaller than this school,” said James. “When I actually went all the way around the school, I didn’t know that the building was so huge.”

Even for students without the challenge of being blind, it’s easy to get lost.

“I was like, OK, this is a huge building and I didn’t even know where I was,” said James. “I got it now, but I’m still working on it.”

James escorted The Times out of the school at the end of the interview. She talked and walked and even at one point said, “and here is my math class.” The challenge isn’t knowing where everything is, but maneuvering in a school with thousands of students.

“I have to deal with people not moving out of the way ... I just run into them,” James said as she laughed.

That’s the thing about James. While she acknowledges that being blind has obvious challenges, she finds enjoyment in the little things, like being able to run into people who don’t respond to a simple “excuse me.”

As for dreams, Shaneka James has plenty of them.

“I want to go to college,” said James with no hesitation when asked about her goals. “I was thinking about going to VSU.”

James wants to study zoology. She loves animals, and in particular, loves snakes.

“Wild Adventures has a bunch of them,” said James.

For now, James has her mind set on conquering her visual arts class.

“When (the school) first brought it up to me, I was like visual? Um, I’m blind,” said James.

James started the class in January. In the beginning, she was a little lost.

“I was like, I don’t know what I’m doing,” said James.

The class wasn’t just a new challenge for James. It was a challenge for Adams, her art teacher, too. Until James, Adams had never had to teach a blind student.

“When you’re sighted, you don’t realize things you need to explain,” said Adams. “She teaches me way more that I teacher her.”

Despite the challenge, James and Adams have become a team that has churned out piece after piece of artwork.

“She’s great,” said James. “We’re working together.”

James’ first art project was called zentangle.

"It's sort of like doodling," said James.

Zentangle is a relaxing and fun way to create images by drawing structured patterns. It requires no particular method or direction, it’s simply doodling repetitive images through feeling.

James also used Wikki Stix to create a cat.

“They look like straws ... and they feel like rubber,” James said of the Wikki Stix.

Though James has never visually seen a cat, she has owned many and knows their characteristics from touch.

James has also worked with crayons and colored pencils.

“I color circles, hearts, squares,” said James.

From feeling shaped objects, James understands what shapes look like.

“I will picture them and how they look,” said James.

Just recently, James began to paint.

“I want to paint, I guess, because of the way the paint feels. It’s not as sticky as glue. It’s like slimy,” said James. “I love paint.”

James uses a painting method pioneered by Wassily Kandinsky, a Russian artist and art theorist from the early 1900s. Kandinsky painted purely abstract works while listening to symphonic music. He felt music directly appealed to an artist’s “internal element.”

“I painted to a love song,” said James. The song: “You’re Always on My Mind.”

“The song was really slow,” said James. “The tempo of the beat was the way I was painting.”

James has discarded brushes and uses her fingers to paint. You can visualize the tempo in the song through the strokes of paint on the paper. The strokes were long, soft, and the lines of the finger were imprinted which suggested the drag was slow and smooth.

James was conscious of the colors she chose. Though she cannot see color, she has a palette with Braille labels spelling out each color. Adams will pour the paint in the correct color label and James went from there.

“She has assigned feelings to color,” said Adams.

Yellow is happy, violet is dark, and her favorite, blue, represents the sky and water.

James also creates art through texture and feel.

"It’s fun. I can feel the different textures of things,” said James.

One piece James made was created with masking tape and crayons. She put the tape in patterns on the paper. She colored around it. At the end, she tore it off.

“In art, it doesn’t have to be perfect,” said James. “Even though I try to make it perfect.”

James is particular about her art. As she sat showing off her artwork, she pressed on the Wikki Stix of her cat to make sure they were in place.

The other students in James’ class are amazed by her, according to Adams.

“When she leaves, they’ll go feel her work and look at it and feel her Braille,” said Adams.

James’ para-professional, Tracey Graham, is also amazed by the things she creates, but isn’t surprised that she can do it.

“I know that she has the ability to do stuff, but it’s been exciting to see,” said Graham. “It’s just amazing.”