Hi Clarke! We’re really excited to bring your Decoding Braille, Decoding Me exhibition to The Base Greenham in January 2022. Can you tell us a bit about what visitors can expect when they visit…?
I’m registered severely sighted, but I’m also a visual artist using braille as my artistic language. You could say I’m a typographer, just that I use a dot instead of a letter. And for me the dot has more power, as it becomes a frame in which I can be as creative as someone who can see.
This exhibition is about taking a tactile language and making it visual, but most importantly it can still be touched and read as braille. For me, I want everyone to learn this amazing language - people that are sighted and also those with vision loss, that way it becomes part of society where I can walk into a restaurant or supermarket, even a toilet, and low and behold there is braille! The misconception surrounding this very tiny tactile language, is that you're reading the dot, but that’s not the case. You’re touching a pattern that relates to the alphabet and when you enlarge the dot, the pattern becomes more defined and visually very graphic.
This exhibition plays on the way we learn logos in society, where we don’t really see the letter but the colours. For instance, McDonald's, we know it’s a big yellow M on a red background - our brain registers the colour and automatically gives it that letter because we know what McDonald’s is and it’s the same with all branding.
So, as I’ve enlarged the dot and then gave each pattern a colour so that the brain sees the dots. Then after training it will recognise the individual letter. But it can still be read by touch. The colours are not random either as I have looked into the commonalty of letters that appear in words so ER ING LY and using colour theory mapped out my visual decoding Braille language. By the end of the 26 words you will, I hope, learn to read Braille just by looking, and of course you get a key to unlock my art. And the best bit is that a visually impaired person who reads Braille can decode my art through touch!
Tell us about your artistic journey to this point…
I knew from age six that I wanted to be an artist and it was around that time that I lost my sight in my right eye. It never bothered me though. Unfortunately, I had to leave school in my teens due to kidney problems, but art was my passion and I got back into education and managed to get a degree in model making and a job as a dental model maker.
Then ten years ago I was told I was going blind in my other eye, but again it wasn’t like "Ahhhhh I’m going blind" it was "right I’ve got my passion for art and I’m going to make it my goal to be a successful professional artist".
What I discovered was that we live in a visual world and as someone who can’t see, but loves art, how can I interact with art? So I started to play around with sound and textiles and was fortunate enough to do a huge community project for Portsmouth Festivities backed by Aspex Portsmouth called 'Eye Sea Squares 20-20'. I thought only hundred people would take part, but in the end over a thousand from age 3 to 90 where they each made a tactile square inspired by the sound of the sea - it was even picked up by the BBC who did an interview with me (please find the link to the interview here). The tapestry was 16 metres long and was all hand sown.
I then got an opportunity to have my first solo exhibition at Yellow Edge Gallery showcasing my way of seeing the world. One factor that has never left me in my art was the use of dots - as I’ve always explained to people, how I see is like looking through a thousand dots and by chance my friend gave me a Perkins typewriter. That was my eureka moment! I knew that I wanted to explore Braille as an art form, as words are so important to me as I lose my sight so that description sound of the English language became my muse. I did a piece called 'My Rosetta Stone' where I created the alphabet in buttons and learnt Braille in three weeks just by the pattern. That piece went off to Rome last month for Rome art week - who would of thought that when I was diagnosed with going blind!!
Outside In, a disability arts organisation, gave me the opportunity to print Braille at Ditchling Museum of Art and Craft where I made history by printing Braille on the Stanhope Press - the same one that Edward Johnson used in printing the London Underground posters!
I now call my self 'The Blind Braille Artist bringing Braille into the 21st century'. I have had the most amazing two years doing community projects - a 'Braille Trail' at Victorious Music Festival, a Braille bench in Southampton city centre, and I just finished the 'We Shine' Portsmouth Art and Light Festival with my installation, 'To See Stars'. In three nights over 2,000 people came and even queued up to experience star Braille. this was off the back of exhibiting at the oxo tower London as well.
My biggest achievement though is that a school in London, Kings Cross Academy named a class after me as an inspirational artist. For me that’s so important as those children are going to grow up knowing about sight loss and Braille, and that’s what my art is about - not only the visual, but it allows us to talk about sight loss and break down barriers and stigma attached to it.
What are your hopes for the future?
2022 is looking busy!!! Working with The Base on my first ever touring exhibition, then being asked by Aspex Portsmouth to create a new body of work for a three month exhibition. In between that, there's a Paralympic Heritage Project and I'm also planning a road trip across the east coast of the USA making a documentary about Braille on the street (which is a dream so please pinch me). And my own podcast about talking about art that I can’t see called Art in sight'.
For me, my hope for the future is to be accepted in the art world. Unfortunately, disability arts is seen more of a hobby and we’re not taken serious enough. I want to be as famous as Damien Hirst and Banksy, because if I’m not in the public eye how can I be a role model for visually impaired children and change how we look at disability arts? I would love to do a show alongside Damien Hirst with his dots and mine to see how the public reacts when they find out that a blind artist produced a thought provoking art along side a a well known mainstream artist...
And course, with fame comes great rewards, which my biggest would be being picked for Strictly Come Dancing - I can’t dance and I can’t see, that would make great TV! Also my plan is to exhibit in Tate Modern in the Turbine Hall and maybe be nominated for the Turner prize? I truly believe that I can achieve these and be known around the globe as the blind Braille artist!!!
Clarke is also giving a talk about his work with a chance to explore the exhibition with a glass of wine (or juice) on Saturday 15 January - find out more