The Story: Ever since I was very young, I dreamed of pursuing a career as an artist. Drawing pictures was something that I always loved to do, so it was an easy career choice for me. From my earliest memories, I knew my vision was different; filled with lots of bright, fluorescent colored floaters and the inability to see at night or in dim light. Surprisingly, I never realized that I was losing peripheral vision until I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 16. Despite having only an 8 to 10 degree field of vision by my early twenties, I never let it get in the way of pursuing my career as an artist. After graduating from a community college, with an associate's degree in commercial art, I began taking on freelance assignments from local newspapers and small publications. Wildlife and the outdoors were a big part of my life; inspired by two of my college instructors, who were nationally known wildlife artists, and having grown up in a rural neighborhood close to the woods, I made wildlife the primary subject matter for most of my artwork.
I worked in a variety of media—pencil, charcoal, and oils; however, my two favorites were acrylics and pen and ink. I loved acrylics because they were easy to control using a dry-brush technique, allowing me to render the intricate detail so evident in many of my paintings. Pen and ink also afforded me the ability to create highly detailed drawings using a Rapidograph pen and paintbrush with refreshingly faster results. When I was not working on a commissioned assignment, I was always striving for improvement, uniqueness, and marketability in my new creations. In other words, I never stopped producing whether I had a paid assignment or not.
Every original piece evolved out of a series of thumbnail sketches, tonal drawings, and reference materials, before I began the final rendering. Depending upon the size, it was not uncommon for me to devote 400-500 hours to one acrylic painting. Since at the time I still retained fairly good 20/30 central vision, I never used any adaptive visual aids except for good lighting. With tunnel vision, the hardest part of my job was producing the final rendering, which had to be perfect. I often needed to stand back for a more panoramic view, scanning furiously as I drew, to insure that all sections were proportionate with one another. Once I completed the final drawing, however, I could then sit and relax, putting the "icing on the cake" and applying the paint. I enjoyed this stage most of all because as you complete each section the process becomes more and more exciting as you watch the images begin to take shape.
Despite my unwavering commitment to succeed as a freelance artist, I would categorize my commercial success as "moderate" at best. Truthfully, I spent more time enhancing my portfolio and trying to market my skills as opposed to being engaged in paid assignments. I can't say that I blame my visual impairment for my mediocre commercial success. At the time, I think that my shy, nonassertive personality, coupled with fierce competition may have contributed. Nevertheless, by 1987, I was ready for a change.
In September 1987, I began training at our state's Business Enterprise Program (BEP) foodservice training center in Harrisburg, PA. I was looking for a different kind of job that would offer autonomy and a steady income, but most importantly, job security regardless of impending visual deterioration. Exactly one year after I began my training I was awarded my first foodservice facility—a small operation within a clothing manufacturing company in Taylor, PA, where I supervised one part-time employee. After five years of operation in this start-up situation, I was promoted to a larger facility located within a state office building in Harrisburg, where my wife, Michele, and I collaborated to manage a highly successful business from July 1993 until June 2001.
The foodservice business is brutal! I often worked an average of 55 to 60 hours per week, leaving me with very little free time. Although I was a hands-on manager (performing all customer transactions via a talking cash register, making and serving coffee, and cleaning), I was also responsible for nearly every aspect of management as well, such as supervising four full- and part-time employees, planning weekly menus, ordering supplies, and so forth.
I'm really not sure how an art career could prepare anyone to be a foodservice manager, but I suppose that there were some transferable attributes such as self-discipline, endurance, attention to detail, and the ability to make creative decisions during menu planning and food presentation. I am grateful for my 13 years working in the Business Enterprise Program because it eventually gave me the financial stability I was looking for, but most importantly, the experience allowed me to develop those valuable people skills that were missing in the earlier years of my career.
Feeling very confident, I decided that one day I would leave the foodservice program, learn basic computer and assistive technology skills, and pursue a more relaxed means of making a living. After retiring from the Business Enterprise Program in June of 2001, I invested a significant amount of time in learning braille, typing, and basic computer and assistive technology skills. My initial goal was to secure employment in a customer service position related to an area that I knew I would enjoy, such as sporting goods, environmental or outdoor publications, art, or the like. Unfortunately, I learned that trying to tailor one's skills into an area of individual interest is much more difficult than I ever imagined.
I landed my first clerical job performing data entry within a company that provides support services for insurance companies, such as telephone interviews, paralegal exams, medical records requests, DNA testing, etc. Although my position lasted only seven months, the opportunity gave me important experience working in an office environment using adaptive technology. At this stage, I had lost 95% of my vision, but through the use of JAWS, OpenBook, braille, and a small hand-held recorder, I was able to perform my job duties with great ease.
Reflecting back on my career decisions, I realize that it has been one dramatic evolutionary process, meaning that every experience has gradually transformed me into a more confident and competent person. As an artist, I learned the value of sacrifice, commitment, and striving for excellence. In addition to applying these qualities to foodservice, I discovered that I actually had people skills, which have helped in many aspects of my life. Finally, my decision to master the braille code, study basic computer skills, and learn to use assistive technology has enriched my life beyond my wildest dreams. I feel very confident and optimistic about my occupational future and have been searching for a customer service/clerical job near my home or one that I can perform via telecommuting.
Most recently, though, I have begun research on the possibility of setting up a home-based "art print business" that would feature affordable, high-quality matted prints of my original wildlife art. Although I have pondered this idea for years, I was even more inspired to move forward after the Foundation Fighting Blindness (FFB) chose two of my pieces for publication in their 2004 holiday card collection. FFB says that the cards have sold very well. I'm taking this as a good sign and perhaps will move on to another great venture!
Editor's note: To view or listen to a description of John's two holiday cards, go to www.blindness.org/content.asp?id=314. Scroll down the page to see a number of cards created by artists with visual impairments. John's cards include beautiful, detailed drawings of a blue jay and a chipmunk.
You may also see "RP Image by John Lewis," a simulation of one of his life-long visual perceptions. Although John's visual experiences are constantly changing, this depiction was created in the early 1980s (when he had some central vision) and it simulates "staring at a person's eye while in a dimly lit environment such as a restaurant or bar."
The Contact: John D. Lewis