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Artist heeds call to go West with paintbrush, canvas

Legally blind painter draws from childhood TV, tales


Tracy Miller of Sylvania, looks at the ‘Cowboys and Indians’ exhibit by local artist Dave Wisniewski at the River Centre Gallery in Sylvania. His work will be shown until May 2.

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Every time Dave Wisniewski puts paint to canvas, he’s taken back to a childhood filled with episodes of Bonanza, John Wayne on the big screen, and games of cowboys and Indians.

Mr. Wisniewski, 60, who’s legally blind, is a frequent composer of portraits of cowboys and Indians. An exhibit at River Centre Gallery in Sylvania features 14 new pieces of his work. They made their debut April 1 and will be shown until May 2.

“I was kind of born into that. All the old cowboy shows started around that same time,” Mr. Wisniewski said. “I grew up with all that. That’s what you played with — toy guns and cowboy hats.”

After he first painted a cowboy, someone found it interesting and his intrigue with the western United States grew, mixing with passion for artwork.

“Most of my life as long as I can remember I was doodling and drawing,” Mr. Wisniewski said. 

“My mother was an artist. I always seemed to draw guys with hats, which probably came from the television shows. As I paint, you feel like you are playing. It doesn’t feel like work,” he said. “You’re enjoying what you’re doing. It’s a little bit of childhood mixed in there.”

Diminished eyesight makes his work even more extraordinary.

In 1987, Mr. Wisniewski became legally blind in one month because of diabetic retinopathy. The only way to stop leakage in his eye was to use lasers, which put holes in his retina.

It was a devastating experience for Mr. Wisniewski, but he said a self-evaluation led to the realization that painting was still a possibility.

After graduating summa cum laude with a degree in painting from the University of Toledo, Mr. Wisniewski carved a path in his industry.

“He spends his days in his studio listening to old western stories about different cowboys and Indians,” said Dani Fuller, creative art director for River Centre Gallery. “He develops a character in his head and then brings that character to life on canvas. I think he becomes that character himself. When he listens to those stories, he’s coming up with a scenario or scene and what’s going on in their mind. He brings the story to life.

“He’s constantly producing these cool, crazy cowboys and Indians. It’s a new face, a new look. He’s always reproducing them. They’re very illustrated and sometimes comical. He’s been painting forever. He’s made a name for himself.”

Ms. Fuller referred to Mr. Wisniewski as a “local artist hero,” lauding him for his ability to create paintings that continually attract the public’s attention.

The process of creating a painting begins with Mr. Wisniewski building a canvas, which he does from pieces of lumber. As he paints, Mr. Wisniewski walks a path of 6 feet to and from the surface of the canvas.

He sees best from 18 inches away. If he wants to get a feel of how someone with typical vision might view his work, he stands in the back of his garage with a pair of binoculars. Or he will use a mirror and looks at it with his back turned.

“It reverses it, so it’s like you’ve never seen it before. You can see if something is disproportionate or if there’s a problem you didn’t see because of eye fatigue,” Mr. Wisniewski said. 

“You have to bring it to life, and you put yourself in it. It’s almost like getting to know someone. As you sit down at a table with a complete stranger, you might ask a question. You might imagine how someone is looking at you. It comes to life on its own,” he said. 

“It’s interesting because it’s almost like I’m working with clay rather than paint.”

Contact Kyle Rowland at:, 419-724-6282, or on Twitter @KyleRowland.

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