Being blind is not the best attribute for a painter.
“It makes it a bit more complicated,” says Dave Wisniewski of South Toledo.
He was sighted in his early 20s when he worked at Peaches Records and Tapes, painting posters of recording and movie stars, and creating window displays for new releases. By 1987, he was at a sign shop, doing lettering, illustrations, and air brushing. He and his wife, Sally, had just welcomed their second child when he started having a hard time seeing traffic lights. His retinas were bleeding, and in a month he was legally blind. He was 31. It was, he thought, the end of the world.
He worked at Lott Industries and went through a battery of vocational tests to figure out how he could make a living. Ultimately, he decided he was still an artist. “How do you just stop that?”
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Staff at the Bureau of Services for the Visually Impaired suggested an expert evaluation of his art — surrealistic colored-pencil drawings made while looking through a magnifying glass. Diana Attie at the University of Toledo reviewed the Salvador Dali-like pieces and recommended he enroll in classes.
The bureau provided a computer, a closed-circuit TV on which he could enlarge images, text books on tape, a note taker, and a reader. His mother often drove him and stayed for the class. “I kind of had an entourage,” he says.
To better learn the material, he listened to recorded notes, typed them into his computer, and magnified them to a readable size.
“I was very serious about it.” He studied drawing, illustration, computer-assisted art, painting, and sculpture. “I caught myself on fire once when sparks got in my pant cuff.”
Four years later, he’d earned a summa cum laude degree in painting.
He didn’t intend to make a career painting cowpokes when he painted a large canvas of a weather-beaten cowboy squinting into the sun. He gave a Polaroid photo of it to Toni Andrews, owner of the American Gallery in Sylvania. Within hours, she called to say a customer had seen the photo and wanted to buy his painting. Wisniewski brought it in along with a second cowboy painting that also sold quickly.
“The artwork was leading me at that point.”
He adds texture to the canvas with thick paint, sand, coffee grounds, even pencils and used-up paint tubes. He discovered salt doesn’t dissolve in oil paint and in fact, adds a crystalline effect. He invites people to touch the canvas.
He saves money by making his own frames and stretching big canvases, working by feel. Cowboys, gunfighters, outlaws, lawmen, and Indians are his most frequent subjects. He grew up with and still watches westerns, a sketchbook at the ready.
“I studied western characters and history. It’s such a big well to pull things out of.”
His big rendition of five South-of-the-border desperados, laughing while pointing pistols at the viewer, hangs at Cinco de Mayo Mexican Bar and Grill on Airport Highway.
He listens to books on tape (histories of the West are his favorites) when painting in his garage, and sometimes is inspired to depict a book character. Sharp-shooter Wild Bill Hickock is a favorite.
To paint, he stands 18 inches away from the surface.
“I’m working large. And I stand back about 20 feet and look at it with binoculars so I can kind of see it with the same depth as you might see it, but I’m not sure how accurate that is. It seems to work.” He photographs the work and enlarges images on the computer, zooming on sections.
He doesn’t tell people he’s blind, and struggles not to compare himself to sighted artists.
“I’ve stopped caring too much about what anybody else is doing. I get very discouraged. I sometimes wonder what would I be doing if I could see. So I kind of keep my head down and plow ahead,” he says. “It’s really not up to me whether I’m successful. It’s really up to the people who buy my work.”
Wisniewski maintains a healthy sense of humor, and celebrates the positives. In 2009 he won entry into the Chelsea International Fine Art Competition in New York and attended the opening reception.
“But it doesn’t compare to someone putting something of mine in their home. That’s what it’s about.”
See more of his work at davewisniewski.com.