It’s a Colorful Life: Mural at Justin Institute Created by World-Renowned Painter who is Blind
The new Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health at Cook Children’s, opening this fall, features the work of visually impaired painter who also has epilepsy.
This mural, depicting Fort Worth's rich culture and vibrant identity, will welcome patients at the new Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health, which is set to open in October 2023. The Justin Institute will bring together nine specialties under one roof. Pediatric specialists in neurological, developmental and behavioral health are changing the way we deliver health care. Learn more here.
Story by Ashley Antle. Video by Tom Riehm.
There was a time when world-renowned painter John Bramblitt’s life was shrouded in darkness. At the age of 31, after years of gradual vision loss due to complications from epilepsy, Bramblitt lost the last of his eyesight.
Bramblitt was 2 years old when he had his first seizure. From that point on, he spent his childhood in and out of hospitals. During his most severe seizures, Bramblitt’s heart would momentarily stop beating and he would stop breathing. As a teen, his epilepsy was further complicated by Lyme disease, which he likely contracted years before it was discovered and diagnosed.
To pass the time and cope with the many days and nights he spent in the hospital as a child, Bramblitt turned to art, an activity he has loved since as far back as he could remember.
“I love to draw and I think I could draw before I could walk,” he said. “For some reason, in my own brain, art just makes sense. It was my way of figuring things out. It became really important because, even in the hospital, it's easy to have stuff to draw with. You can have crayons. You can have pencils. So it's easy to bring drawing stuff with you everywhere you go. And I drew every day. I took every class I could take on drawing and read every book that I could about it and different artists.”
Drawing was Bramblitt’s connection to the world outside of his hospital room. It was his escape from epilepsy and helped him process the daily health challenges he faced.
Then, while a student at the University of North Texas, his world began to go dark. Damage to Bramblitt’s brain from years of seizures eventually took 40% of his hearing and all of his sight. Bramblitt spiraled into a deep depression, thinking the artist in him was also lost forever.
“After my eyesight went, I didn't think I'd ever be able to draw again,” Bramblitt said. “Honestly, I was so angry and so depressed. I just didn’t feel like I had any future. I didn’t have any hope.”
But the artistic abilities Bramblitt used to make sense of his difficult circumstances were still there and eventually resurfaced in his soul.
The Darkness Fades
“It took me about a year to learn how to travel independently to leave my little college apartment and travel a short distance to the university,” Bramblitt explained. “Then it occurred to me if I can cross these streets, surely I should be able to use these same techniques to cross a canvas. So I got some materials and I just started to draw.”
Instead of a pencil, Bramblitt picked up a paintbrush. He never considered himself a painter or even felt like he’d be good at it, but he knew the texture of paint would allow him to feel his work, something he couldn’t do with pencil or charcoal.
“I thought, well, at least I could get paint and I could touch it,” he said. “So I could touch red, and I could touch blue. I still remember what colors look like.”
Bramblitt began painting the lines and shapes of objects that he felt, and taught himself to navigate each work of art the same way he navigates the world around him — through touch. A special additive that gives paint texture allows him to customize the feel of each paint color so that he can differentiate where his paint lines begin and end.
He says his first completed drawing after becoming visually impaired was the worst work of his life, but the most proud he’s ever been of a piece. Bramblitt had no idea how far he could go with the rediscovery of his skills, but he knew he could at least get what he was seeing in his mind’s eye and feeling in his soul on paper again.
“For the longest, I didn't think anybody would ever want to see a painting of mine,” he said. “I mean, why would they? But it was helping me.”
It wasn’t long before Bramblitt was painting up to 16 hours a day. The more he painted the more the darkness lifted. Art was once again a way to cope, communicate and connect with the world around him, this time with more vibrancy, color and emotion than ever before.
“That's really why I paint with realism, instead of it just being all abstract,” Bramblitt said. “I want to feel people's faces. I want to feel objects, and I want to incorporate that into the artwork so people know that I'm actually understanding the world. It gives me a way to be able to tell stories. Over the years, though, I care a little less about what people think, but I still love telling stories and I love communicating with people. So I still paint realistically, but the colors are very abstract. Colors are a wonderful way to be able to tell emotion.”
Patience and Perseverance Pay Off
Following the encouragement of a friend, Bramblitt began entering his paintings in art shows. Initially, he did not reveal to people viewing his art that he was blind. He wanted others to see the work for what it was and not for the fact that it was created by a visually impaired individual.
Today, Bramblitt’s art has been sold in more than 120 countries. His masterpieces and story have been featured in national and international news outlets, numerous magazine covers and even major feature films.
But it took time, he says, and he encourages others facing similar challenges to be patient with themselves and their progress.
“We always want everything right now, but give yourself time to work through things and don’t be afraid to fail every once in a while,” he said. “It's OK for things to not work out. If things aren't going wrong every once in a while when you're doing something, then you're probably not trying enough new things. Be easy on yourself and give yourself time.”
A Magical Mural
Bramblitt’s latest work is a 6-foot-tall by 15-foot-long mural depicting Fort Worth’s rich culture and vibrant identity. It will hang at the entrance to the new Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health. The piece was commissioned by Scott Perry, M.D., head of Neurosciences at the Justin Institute and self-proclaimed art enthusiast. Dr. Perry was first introduced to Bramblitt and his work at an Epilepsy Foundation Texas fundraiser.
“As an epileptologist and art lover, I instantly connected with John, his story and his work, and initially asked him to do a project with the kids in Cook Children’s Epilepsy Monitoring Unit during Epilepsy Awareness Month,” Dr. Perry said. “When we began thinking about artwork for the Justin Institute, I wanted to feature pieces that would be more than just pictures on a wall. I wanted the artwork to be an experience for visitors, and for children and families to see hope for their own stories in these pieces, and I knew John was the perfect artist for this. Not only is his work beautiful and powerful all on its own, but his story will be an inspiration to every child that hears it and sees this painting.”
The star of the mural is a little girl surrounded by iconic Fort Worth scenes, including a calf and a singing cowboy. The bright, bold colors in one scene are balanced with the depiction of a nighttime scene that Bramblitt says includes “all kinds of wonderful, nice things.”
“For a child in the hospital, the hard times often are at night and on weekends, especially if you're in the hospital for weeks or months,” he said. “You'll have a lot of visitors sometimes during the week, but it seems like the weekends just drag on. So I wanted to have a little bit of the darkness there, but also have it pleasant and happy as a reminder that there are positive, wonderful times.”
Bramblitt’s painting is one of a number of neuro art installments at Cook Children’s. Every work within the neuro art collection was created by artists who have a connection to the neurosciences through their own personal experiences or careers.
Bramblitt hopes his mural connects with the feelings kids face when up against a health challenge, while also evoking confidence, optimism, a sense of calming reassurance and, above all else, happiness for those who pass by.
“I honestly thought my life was over whenever I lost my eyesight,” he said. “I'm still epileptic and I'm still blind, but I'm happier than I've ever been. I get to do things like this mural, and I get to travel, and I get to meet and talk to people and hear their stories. I'm just really happy.”
Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health at Cook Children's
Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health at Cook Children'sJane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health at Cook Children’s Medical Center – Fort Worth.
Kids with neurological disorders often face many challenges - and see many specialists. For many families that means multiple visits to different locations. At Cook Children’s, we’re changing the way we deliver care by making their journey easier. How? By opening the doors to care that’s centered around the unique needs of our patients and their families.
Introducing the Jane and John Justin Institute for Mind Health at Cook Children’s – bringing together nine specialties under one roof. Pediatric specialists in neurological, developmental and behavioral health are changing the way we deliver health care. Together, we’re healing minds and bodies, and sharing smiles that warm the soul and connecting care for kids unlike anyone else.