From a Dark Place

After losing his sight, an artist’s journey to reinvent his life is a lesson in overcoming obstacles

Every night, in his dark bedroom, within his dark mind, Brendan Patrick starts to think of the next thing he wants to paint. He is an artist, and sleep doesn’t come easily to him. So he takes advantage of the darkness — the ideal blank canvas.

He tends to conjure images in his head that would pair nicely with the tattoos that cover his body, or his disheveled hair and his rocker T-shirts. He gravitates toward monsters and ghouls and other “weird stuff,” like army tanks covered in jewels.

When you’ve got nothing but the inside of your head, Patrick says, anything is possible.

Patrick is blind. Not “legally” blind, where an extremely thick pair of glasses might help him read. And not blind with the faintest ability to distinguish light from dark. Blind, as in the ability to process exactly zero pictures of the physical world.

For Patrick, there is only a “dark blackness” that colors his daily existence. It is darker, he says, than what you would see if you closed your eyes right now. He knows that, because he didn’t lose his vision until he was 26 years old.

As Patrick likes to explain to people to help them understand the level of his disability: “I can’t see shit.”

(Editor’s note: Can’t See Shit is also the working title of a documentary being developed about Patrick.)

How, exactly, does something like blindness affect someone like Patrick, who must seemingly depend on sight for his passion — and his livelihood? How on earth would you adapt? Patrick was a prolific tattoo artist and painter before losing his sight. Did going blind mean that he would have to abandon his talent?

At first, he thought it might. And yet, over the last eight years, Patrick, 34, has made a strange journey back to where he started. He is not the same. But he is producing with his brushes, paints, and canvases within a system that includes Braille, puffy paint, and strict routine.

Patrick’s perspective on his craft is in some ways, he says, much more real. He has unhinged himself from the illusion of achieving perfection. He no longer subjects himself to endless iterations of one painting. He does not think about how the outside world will judge him.

“I’ve learned to let go,” Patrick says. “I don’t dwell on anything anymore. I’m not looking to create a masterpiece.”

Dealing With Limitations

The art world is filled with artists who have turned their limitations into unique methods of creativity.

Art therapist Molly Murphy, who practices in metro Detroit, says that we take for granted that almost all forms of creativity come from some kind of “disability.” It doesn’t have to be something physical, she says. Something as universal as a broken heart is an “emotional” disability that has, in countless ways, led to some of the greatest creativity and invention in history. Who hasn’t felt like the force of unrequited love could launch a thousand ships?

Still, we are fascinated by how someone working against such magnificently different odds can thrive. The late artist Judith Scott suffered from Down syndrome and could not speak or hear, but her art, in which she wrapped up ordinary objects in string, knotted materials, and yarn, captivated the art world. New York Times writer Lawrence Downes calls her work “bafflingly beautiful.”

“She would work until her fingers were stiff and bleeding,” Downes wrote in an essay about Scott’s work earlier this year. “Motivated by who knows what.”

“I’ve learned to let go. I don’t dwell on anything anymore. I’m not looking to create a masterpiece.”
— Brendan Patrick

Musician Evelyn Glennie, who went nearly deaf as an adolescent, explains her creative process in the documentary Touch the Sound. She is a percussionist whose childhood instructor had no idea how he was going to teach her to play the drums. “I hear music through my hands, through my arms, my cheekbones, my scalp,” she told him. So she began touching the walls to feel the vibrations of each beat. She has learned to experience music “much more profoundly” than with ears alone.

Adapting to Health Problems

Though Patrick lost his sight well into young adulthood, he had been dealing with severe health problems his entire life. He’s never known a day without some kind of medical issue. He was born with clubbed feet.

When he was a baby, during one of his many visits to the doctor, Patrick’s mother saw a poster explaining how salty skin can be a sign of cystic fibrosis.

“She told the doctor that I was salty when she kissed me and wondered if I had CF, and he basically blew her off. He said she had enough to worry about with my clubbed feet,” Patrick says.

Patrick wore leg braces from the time he could walk. He grew up with digestive problems and, later, developed polyps in his nose. Astonishingly, doctors finally diagnosed Patrick’s CF when he was 9 years old. He’d been living with the disease undetected since birth — most children are diagnosed before they turn 2.

CF, a genetic illness, is defined by the thick, sticky mucus that builds up in a person’s body. It is relentless. In the pancreas, the mucus disrupts the production of digestive enzymes — absorbing nutrients is a daily challenge for CF patients. Like a trap in the lungs, the mucus holds on to bacteria, causing repeated infections like pneumonia and, eventually, respiratory failure.

Many people with CF do not survive past their mid-20s. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation states that today the life expectancy for someone with CF is 41.

All of this dovetailed into a childhood for Patrick in which he lived as sick or well. He adapted from the beginning, knowing he was different. He wanted to have fun and enjoy life. He developed a biting sense of humor. He didn’t want to waste time dwelling on the consequences of his disease. He decided not to go to college. He would make his living as a tattoo artist, play music, and paint.

One of his best friends suspects that was because Patrick believed he probably wasn’t going to be around for a long life.

“I have a lot of respect for the guy,” says Tom Beste, a fellow artist. “Brendan lives in a scary world that practically no one can understand. I’m not sure I could handle it the way he does.”

It would get scarier when Patrick’s CF finally took a toll. He had been relatively healthy until he was 24, and then his lungs collapsed for the first time, turning his life into a series of hospital stays and a haze of medications. It was the beginning of his “downfall,” Patrick says.

He went on oxygen full time and could barely walk 15 feet without gasping for breath. At 26, another visit to the hospital proved to be the ultimate test. He could no longer breathe on his own. The only way he was going to leave is if he got a lung transplant — or died.

Five months later, Patrick was still in the hospital, and life had become mundane while he waited for a new pair of lungs. He had at least learned how to talk while on life support — he breathed through a tracheal tube — and he painted every day.

“It was the only way for me not to be totally bored,” Patrick says. “It was the only way I could make it through.”

One week before his transplant, Patrick was watching a Pistons game on TV. Almost suddenly, he realized he could no longer read the score at the bottom of the screen. His mom thought he might just need a stronger prescription for his glasses.

Two days later he couldn’t see the basketball game at all.

“It was all just fuzz,” Patrick says. “Then all I could see was peripherally. I started painting sideways and sitting sideways. I called it my raptor vision.”

Eye doctors investigated, but none of them could figure out what was going on. Patrick received his new lungs a couple of days later. He could finally breathe on his own, and he was going home soon. But when he regained consciousness, his sight was gone. Today, Patrick and his doctors can only speculate that the cumulative physical trauma he had gone through somehow wrecked his optic nerves.

“All I could do was cry for the first few days,” Patrick says. “Here I was, totally feeling better because of my lung transplant. But my life was painting. I could always get lost in my own little world. I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Independent Spirit

Today Patrick lives is his own home in Ferndale. His relies on friends for transportation and grocery shopping. Fiercely independent, Patrick is at ease with his surroundings. His paintings line the upstairs hallway, and his bedroom studio is filled with canvasses. The walls in his dining room are a deep, dark red, which he painted himself.

That feat would have been almost impossible for him when he first had to start coping with his blindness. It is common for people who lose their sight in adulthood to experience profound disorientation — to become depressed and almost paralyzed by fear of the future.

In what seemed to Patrick like an absurd joke, a career survey he took at the Michigan Bureau of Services for Blind Persons said he was best suited to be a graphic artist.

“I mean, really?” Patrick recalls. “I pretty much started to concentrate on music for the longest time after my surgery. Because that’s the only thing I thought I could do. Trying to paint was pretty sad.”

It’s a mistake to assume that people who are born blind somehow have other, more “heightened” senses that give them an advantage over those with acquired blindness, says Anne Riddering, an occupational therapist. The certified orientation and mobility specialist at Henry Ford Health System worked extensively with Patrick after he went blind.

“People who are born blind don’t necessarily hear better,” she says. “They just learn to use their senses differently. A thing like crossing the street, which is a very complex task, is actually easier for people like [Patrick] who know the difference between ‘parallel’ and ‘perpendicular.’ A person who is born blind doesn’t understand that concept.”

Nevertheless, Patrick still had to learn to sense the world in a new way. Before he could ever get back to being an artist, Riddering says, “he needed to know how to make breakfast.”

The most critical skill would become Patrick’s ability to decipher the physical clues in life that he would not have thought about when he could see. Where was the sound coming from? Was he facing north or south? How many streets were between his house and Nine Mile Road?

When his stick fell off the curb, how many steps would it take for him to fall off the curb?

“Brendan’s painting has always been defined by his drive to live.”
— Tom Beste, friend and artist

There’s no mysterious science behind this, Riddering says, especially when artists like Patrick must essentially “reinvent” their talents after their disabilities take over.

The process of adaptation is individual. It comes more naturally for some people than others. What was special about Patrick, Riddering says, is that he absolutely knew that he was meant to be a painter. He knew that playing the guitar for the rest of his life wasn’t going to cut it.

A couple of years after he went blind, Patrick experimented with sculpting. This didn’t cut it either. His desire to paint slowly returned.

Riddering at one point had taught Patrick how to use puffy paint on the oven dials to distinguish high heat from low heat. He would ultimately end up using the same technique to outline his drawings and color them in. Patrick has perfected his system, labeling his paints with Braille and continuing to gravitate toward the same bright colors that inform his aesthetic as an artist. He regularly shows his work in local art galleries. He says he enjoys the attention.

“No one would pay that much attention to me if I could see like everyone else,” Patrick jokes.

There are easier things for a blind person to do, Beste admits. But art has always been his friend’s creative outlet, and it always will be, he says.

“Brendan’s painting has always defined his drive to live,” Beste says. “Being blind was never going to stop him.”