Michael Williams is legally blind.
His vision is 20-100. That means that on a standard eye chart, he cannot read the letters on the second line from the top.
It means he cannot make out the street address on his own house. He can’t make out items on a menu, and he needs a special magnifying device to read messages on his phone.
The degenerative disorder known as Stargardt’s Disease is a condition he inherited at birth. To quote medical journals, it is “caused by the death of photoreceptor cells in the central portion of the retina called the macula.” The macula is responsible for tasks like reading, watching television, and looking at faces.
In spite of his condition, Michael has managed something of a lifelong miracle.
“A lot of people find it hard to believe that a person can be visually impaired and be an artist,” Michael said. “But I know of two guys in Texas. One is in Austin – we’re FaceBook friends – his name is John Brownlee and we talk every now and then.”
Michael invited me to sit down with him one afternoon in November. At his home studio, we talked while he painted.
It was a pleasure to watch him work.
I came away with an impression not of a man with any impairments, but of a man driven by what he calls a passion bestowed on him by God. He is also driven, he said, by a desire to encourage people who are also impaired to not feel sorry for themselves.
“Anything,” he said, “is possible.”
By Michael’s estimation, he has painted between 50 and 60 paintings.
He’s had one exhibition show in Memphis, for the Epic Vision program at Crosstown Arts (in 2015 before it moved into Crosstown Concourse). There he shared exhibition space with his mother Mattie Williams, who first inspired him to paint.
Being visually impaired however makes getting to any event a challenge. And when one factors in having to cart a dozen or more paintings to a show, it presents even more difficulties.
“I’ve had to pass on a few,” he said. The art community, he said, still isn’t too sure how to deal with visually impaired artists.
“I’m hoping by getting out there more that people will start to take us more seriously.”
Though he was encouraged to paint at an early age by his mother, he encountered the usual roadblocks that come with an impairment, and it took him almost a lifetime of years before settling into his current routine.
Painting was just in his blood
Early in his life he tried other trades. “But they never did work,” he said, “because there was always something that drew me back to being an artist. It was just in my blood. And having a mom who didn’t hold me back or handicap me made a big difference – and watching her paint, back in the day when I was nine or ten years old. So, I decided to try it.”
During his middle school years Michael attended Treadwell Jr. High. When he first enrolled, the school discouraged him from taking art classes because of concerns for his eyesight. His teacher there, Leslie Stalls, encouraged him to paint and kept pushing him.
It wasn’t until high school – at Memphis Technical High School – and his teacher Joe Walker that his art began to take shape.
Recognition soon followed. A few awards kept him practicing his craft.
He won awards in several art competitions – he won Tech High School’s “Outstanding Art Student” award in the 1980s – that were later followed by a top-three and top-two finishes in St. Joseph Hospital Pen and Ink Art Competition, in Southland Mall Scholastic Arts Competition and Mid-South Fair Pen and Ink Art Competition. He gained similar recognitions by the American Printing House for the Blind International Art Competition in 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2014.
In college he majored in commercial art, and he was the first person in his family to go to college and finish.
To cap it all off, recently he got the attention of President Barack Obama.
“I sent him a painting called Winter Wonderland, which had won an award. (My mother and sister and I) tracked it see that it got to the White House. He sent me a letter congratulating me, which was a real honor. And he even sent it to me in Braille, which was really nice.”
The Naples Daily News covered Michael and his work, in 2013, and in 2012 he was featured by our own Memphis Flyer (in an article penned by Bianca Phillips, who now works for Crosstown Arts).
However there is still a part of Michael that feels the barriers of his impairment.
“I hope that here in Memphis people recognize the talent they have – especially in the vision-impaired community – because I am the only one I know who is vision impaired who is involved in the visual arts.”
Also, to his knowledge visually-impaired artists programs are few. “San Antonio has a program, Madison, Wisconsin has a program, but I would like to see something started here in Memphis.”
Michael started his own non-profit for visually-impaired artists in 2013, called IASIA-global for International Association for Sight Impaired Artists. (Right now he is in search of a grant writer who might donate their time to help him explore more funding.)
It’s also frustrating for him, he said, when people look at a painting differently knowing of his impairment. “They either don’t believe I painted it or they critique every detail. Just look at the piece,” he said, “for its art.”
Despite the frustrations, there is a gentleness to him. And watching him paint has a calming effect that is almost mesmerizing.
Very much in a routine when he paints, he moves effortlessly from searching for a new color amongst his tubes of paint, opening the tube, squeezing a dollop of paint onto his palette, mixing the colors with his paint brush, and then moving to the canvas to apply the next set of strokes.
“This one here,” he says, almost in a stream of consciousness, “is going to be a forest scene. I had wanted to put a house in it, but I’m thinking I’ll just have the trees, a few flowers, maybe a couple of butterflies, who knows. I’ve been working on it for several weeks off and on. I’ll just paint as I go along, and whatever comes to mind I just paint it in.”
When he searches for a new color, he uses a magnifier. In his work he also requires a great deal of direct light. During the spring and winter, he says, he sometimes paints out in the backyard.
Besides light, music is a companion for him when he paints. “Mostly jazz, some New Age, like Anya, David Sanborn… and also, Ryan Ferrish, and Herbie Hancock, Aretha Franklin or George Benson, and recently, a little group called Tangerine Dream.”
Ah yes, Tangerine Dream, the German electronic music band best known for its work in the late 1970s and on film scores in the early ‘80s.
“You know them? Not many people know them. I use YouTube to listen to them.”
I ask him what inspires him.
“First, whatever comes to mind, really. Whatever inspires me. Sometimes I’ll go online and look up a few photographs, or I’ll see something in a magazine, and I’ll try to memorize them. I don’t want to paint the photograph exactly, I just try to get a sense of where to start it. And when I do start painting it I just go with it, and whatever images come to mind. I try to visualize myself in the scene, in the painting, so that I get the sense of how to paint it.”
“It can be quite challenging when you’re trying to remember things… and trying to see the images, and they look blurry. You do the best you can.”
Another challenge is making a living out of painting. As any artist will tell you, you still have to sell it. And, as Michael says, “art is not a necessity. Thomas Kinkaid was a master at selling his art. And if it wasn’t for the internet, all my paintings would be just sitting here.”
“With my impairment, I use a magnifier to read my phone and read the label to my paints. I also have magnification on my computer. My work computer (he works in customer service for the IRS) also has magnification called Zoomtext, (a screen-reader application called) JAWS (Job Access With Speech) that reads content to me on my computer, Kurwell that scans documents to me on the computer, handheld electronic CCTV (closed-circuit television) that magnifies printed material and a desktop CCTV that aids me to read printed documents at work as well.”
It’s a lot. And the devices and techniques he uses just to get through the day seems daunting to someone with all of their faculties.
To Michael, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We may have a lot of people who tell us we can’t do it, and to me that gives me permission to do it. When someone says I can’t do something I just say ‘thank you’ and that gives me the drive to go out and do it, just to prove them wrong. Not with an in-your-face type attitude, but it becomes something that I just knew I had to do. My mother believed in me, and this is something that God bestowed in me, and I believed in me enough that anything is possible.”
“It’s great to be unique. I like being different. If someone came up with a cure for Stargardt’s, I wouldn’t accept it. I believe that you never miss what you never had. There’s always the possibility that when someone is trying to correct something, that something can be worse. And if it was meant for me to see, then I would have been able to have perfect sight in the first place. So when you come into the world, you have a purpose to serve… if it’s to be the blind artist so you can show the rest of the world that it’s ok to be different, that you still have so much to contribute to the world… people begin to accept one another, and we appreciate the greatness that’s in all of us, in everyone.”
He uses the word blessed as related to his impairment.
“I do see my impairment as a blessing. Because doctors say that you’re lucky to see. And I’m still able to do the things I can do and be resistant to naysayers who say I can’t do anything, or it’s impossible to do it. I had to prove them wrong. Just because you don’t see it, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Anything that man puts his mind to, he can accomplish it. Like in quantum physics, they say everything exists in light and energy and that it just vibrates at a higher frequency. Anything that we can come up with is already in existence, it’s just our mind that can turn it into reality. With me, just because I have limited vision doesn’t mean the inside of me doesn’t manifest itself, because it will, and I’m able to put it out there in form, using color, shape, tone, whatever you call it, and then create a painting.”
“Miracles do exist. If you want to say it that way.”
I will say it that way. Well said, Michael.