James Kessinger paints what he sees. The question is, what does a blind painter see?Every artist, blind or sighted, puts a filter over the world they represent on canvas, shaping and interpreting it to produce unique images.
In the case of blind painter James Kessinger, his approach to painting overcomesthe inhibitions that stifle art. He has found a greater freedom to interpret reality in the seeming limitations of losing all but 3% to 5% of his sight. An abstract artist, especially one who is unformed by conventional training, like James, has even greater freedom to interpret and reinvent. Working within this freedom, he has pushed the limits life placed on him beginning at age 32, when macular degeneration set in, and he has developed an exciting, vibrant style.
Through the Mind’s Eye
Explaining that all sight is made “manifest in your mind,” James says that he sees through the mind’s eye. Such a reasonable, straightforward explanation just begins to scratch the surface of his artistic process. He takes inspiration from multiple sources, including his experience as a Vietnam veteran. In one group of paintings called the “My World” series, paintings represent the visual memories he retains of objects and images viewed when he was fully sighted. They entice viewers to think about the ways color impacts our emotions and to wonder what pieces of images are indelibly imprinted in our own memories—a butterfly wing, a shadowy horse, the pyramids?
The Father of Strata Reduction
Another series that is gaining attention in the art world uses his original take on abstract impressionism, the “Strata Reduction” series. This process is achieved by painting multiple, complete pictures layered over one another on the same canvas. Each layer is strategically positioned and formed to complement the other layers. After a special sanding technique finishes the process, the resulting painting is a dense, richly textured abstract image.
In his “My World of Emotions” series, James depicts his take on the complete range of human emotions. The “My Whimsical World” series gently pokes a little fun at its subjects, introducing notes of humor to suggest we avoid taking ourselves too seriously.
The viewer comes away from every image having experienced something of a blind artist’s emotional state and his struggle to create. James paints with no other assistance than the use of a small, hand-held magnifier that gives him about a one-inch square view. As for colors, he clearly knows what he is doing, despite his ophthalmologist’s declaration that he could not see colors.He has explained that he works partly from memories of colors, partly from a system that organizes paints in specific bins, and partly from the visual freedom of his always reliable mind’s eye.
The Evolution of an Artist
The transformation from a successful businessman and determined entrepreneur to innovative artist didn’t reach full expression until 2008 when James first began to put his visions down on canvas. The process that led him to that moment began much earlier, and can be traced to his childhood on a Kentucky farm, where he was known to make his own toys of wood and clay, and developed a science lab in an old outhouse—clearly someone destined to create his own world from the environment around him.
The curious, determined mind of a scientist and the vision of an artist are both in evidence throughout his story, beginning in 1966 when he earned the first of two patents in electronics testing and measurement. He built Kessinger Industries from that start, manufacturing electronics for the Department of Defense, then selling the company in 1972.
In 1976, mid-way through development of his next business venture, James was diagnosed with macular degeneration. He sold that company, WK Products, in 1979. Next, he developed a design and marketing company, Line Associates, to produce retail displays for major national brands, as well as for entertainment and sports celebrities, selling it in 1984 when his vision loss became more challenging. Shortly after relocating to be near family in 1984, he launched Anderson Packaging, Inc., producing point-of-purchase displays and shipping containers, ultimately creating his most successful venture yet, and one that would continue to grow for the next 24 years.
Finally, post-retirement, with fewer distractions and despite almost total blindness, he began to focus earnestly on painting in 2008, developinga unique style. James put his business instincts to work immediately, getting his art into the hands of collectors and dealers such as Ray Taylor, who has represented James’s work in TV auctions, art shows, and more with great success. Demand has grown to attract art buyers from around the world, leading to custom art commissions from businesses and individuals.
Although the power of the art stands on its own, the story of James Kessinger and his artistic achievements in spite of blindnessgenerates another level of interest. As evidenced by the attention of media, from TV network news to national art news publications,people are inspired and fascinated to learn of his journey through and beyond what could be a devastating disability. We all wonder if we would be capable of such a triumph, and, like James, findinspiration in the physical and psychological effort of creating. Could we learn to listen instead of see,letting the work speak to us throughout the creative process? Could we strive always to seek the truth and honestly portray our vision?
It is easy to become caught up in the enthusiasm for James Kessinger’s success and forget the pain that informs each emotionally charged canvas. When questioned about his feelings, he is realistic but hopeful, telling Art World News in February 2013 that he has “…no regrets with my life. As in everyone’s life, I have encountered both highs and lows…but being unable to watch my children and grandchildren grow is definitely a low. I am excited about the future, both on this plane of existence and on the next.”
James Kessinger’s oil or acrylic paintings on canvas range from 20 “ x 16” to 60” x 48”, as well as in customized sizes. Prices have gone from $900 to $25,000 for original paintings, with a limited edition series of giclées on canvas offered at around $450. James and his wife currently live in Kentucky.