Interview with Timothy Chambers
Legally Blind Professional Artist Timothy Chambers Wants to Help the World to See Beautiful
*Tim recently spoke at TEDx Grant Park (Chicago), and is currently featured in the NY Times #1 best seller Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.
Interview with Artist Timothy J. Chambers (Washington, D.C./Northern Virginia; b1963 Chicago)
Note to editors and writers: Thank you for your interest in this remarkable artist, author, and teacher. This is an unpublished interview with Timothy Chambers in convenient Q&A format that introduces you to Tim and how his disabilities (blindness/deafness) inspire him to produce not just in spite of, but because of his disabilities, with a desire to help others enjoy life to the fullest.
Interview topics include Timothy Chambers: Quite Blind but Quite Good, Origins: The Early Years, On Portraiture, Dealing with Blindness from Diagnosis to Present, On Painting, Current Projects, On Teaching, Tim’s New Book Seeing Beautiful, Coping & Resilience, Tim’s Tidbits, , (click to jump to topic).
Tim is one of America’s best portrait painters and teachers, has dealt with a degenerative eye/ear disease that has left him with less than 10% of normal vision and hearing, has founded an art academy, has an exciting new book published, featured in NY Times bestseller Option B, has spoken at TED, and is engaged in culturally-sensitive current projects. Feel free to build upon any aspect. Images are available in higher resolution upon request; view more of Tim’s work at timothychambers.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For interviews, contact Kim Chambers at email@example.com.
Portrait of Sarah by Timothy Chambers
Timothy Chambers: Quite Blind but Quite Good
Q: Tim, you’re one of the top portrait artists in America. How long have you been painting professionally?
Tim: I have been painting full-time since my twenties, after college. I love what I do. Portraiture has a richness that other genres can’t match. I paint landscapes as well, but people are the most intriguing subject in all of nature, and portraiture is a beautiful way to try and capture a glimpse of a person.
Q: And you’re legally blind, Tim? Isn’t that an oxymoron- a blind artist?
Tim: Well, SSA (Social Security Administration) has determined that I am, by definition, blind. They had me go through a battery of tests and after seeing the results, they determined that I am legally blind since I have less than 20° of peripheral vision. I can see what’s in front o. Yes, the idea of a blind artist does seem funny, doesn’t it? If I was a musician, people wouldn’t think twice about it. But a visual artist that’s blind? I guess molds and stereotypes are meant to be broken! I’ve always been one to try and do what others say cannot be done. My kids knew, when working a chore with me while growing up, not to give up and say “Dad, that’s impossible. Let’s just call it a day.” They knew that was a cue for me to prove them wrong, that anything is possible. It’s amazing how many impossible things we did together. :)
Q: How much vision do you actually have, and how does that compare to normal vision?
Tim: The normal peripheral range for humans is anywhere from 180° to 200°. I have about 17° or less. It is sometimes referred to as “tunnel vision”. I suppose it’s kind of like looking through a paper towel tube, but not exactly. I take in my surroundings and then the brain memorizes to fill in the gaps, so it’s not constrictive and claustrophobic.
Q: That’s less than 10% of normal vision- not a lot to work with. That must be difficult.
Tim: Yes, it’s a bit challenging. On the other hand, 10% is eons more than nothing. I’m thankful- very thankful- that I can see at all. Not something I take for granted! When I wake up in the morning and search for my alarm clock, and find it- I’m thrilled to see. That’s a nice way to start the day- seeing. And no, the alarm clock hasn’t moved; I just have to keep scanning around until I find it! Yes, the limited vision definitely presents and ever-present challenge, but at this point it’s a surmountable challenge. I know that there a thousand worse things that I could be dealing with.
Q: What is the cause of your blindness?
Tim: I have Usher Syndrome. It’s a combination of Retinitis Pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease and hearing loss caused by cochlear nerve damage. I have about 20% of normal hearing. I’ve worn hearing aids since kindergarten, but the eye degeneration was more gradual, first noticed when I was 30 years old.
Q: And you’re able to paint with such limited vision? Albeit on a professional level?
Tim: So far, and surprisingly to many, yes. I trip over my dog on the way to the easel! I guess that a lifetime of experience and training have a lot to do with being able to continue to paint at a high level. However, I’ve always believed that painting consists more than just what we see. I have always taught my students to paint their subject in their minds before they even touch the canvas in order to grab on to their emotional and intellectual response to their subject. Though my eyes are quite limited, my mind and heart are intact.
From a technical standpoint, that’s not an issue, as I know my craft, I know what I am working with, what my paints do, etc. Yes, I have to fish around to find the colors sometimes. It can be disconcerting in a weird way when I look down at my palette and expect to see Ultramarine Blue but instead I’m looking at my Cadmium Yellow Light, and my brain kind of goes blank for a split-second as it wonders “Where’s the blue? It should be right here.” But then I quickly snap that confusion by scanning the palette and to find the blue. It’s not as laborious as it sounds; it’s standard fare, and something that happens in a second or two, and hundreds of times throughout the day.
Q: Wow. That sounds like a lot of work. Is it tiring?
Tim: I think it’s akin to asking a runner “Isn’t it tiring to run 10 miles?” Her answer might be “Well, if you’re not used to running, yes. But I’m conditioned to run and it’s par for the course for me.” Some days seem tougher than others, but I’m used to pressing through, focusing on what I can see.
Admittedly, though, there are times where I’m tired of working hard at it and I just wish I could see well, see easily. There are days when it seems my eyes are not as sharp as on other days. Or sometimes things just seem more hazy. I know rest and stress can play a factor, but I’d like to discover if diet or exercise play a role in seeing day to day. Regardless, you just grind through it and focus (literally!) on the task at hand. Interestingly, my painting is not really affected at all compared to the effect of moving around, navigating.
Q: It seems like humor plays a role in coping with your limitations. Can you provide examples?
Tim: I would say humor plays a huge role in keeping a bright perspective. There’s hardly a day that goes by that wouldn’t amuse somebody by what I don’t see or mishear. I think my bride Kim keeps a journal of my “mishearings”. I wonder sometimes if my first few years were so quiet that my imagination made up its own chatter and white noise. I’m not sure what came first- the imagination or the artist. Do I imagine because I’m an artist, or am I an artist because I imagine? Kim says I keep her entertained with how I come up with possible scenarios, including funny and outrageous plots on the spot. I have a running list of scenes for a movie script. :)
I’ll run off a few examples of mishearings and mis-sights:
- After having found an item in a store, I began walking down the extra-wide aisle but was looking at my item instead of looking ahead. I bumped into a gentleman walking close to the shelves on the right. I quickly apologized and proceeded on. He checked his pockets to make sure I wasn’t a pickpocket. He had to be wondering why in the world I would walk into him when there was more than enough room to pass him.
- Sometimes I unknowingly flirt with women. For example, I was shopping for a cell phone. They’re usually arranged in a long row, side by side. I picked one up, looked it, put it down. Then I stepped to the right to view the next one. I had checked out a few phones when I’m suddenly yanked hard by my son. “What’s your problem?! Why did you pull me like that?” “That woman thinks you’re flirting with her.” What woman? “That one. Every time she stepped away, you took a step towards her as you were scoping out the phones.” I had no idea anyone was beside me, and here I’m flirting? Surprise misunderstanding like this happen often due to my mis-sights. :)
- I was Christmas shopping with my kids. We stopped at a display of massage gadgets. My daughter was testing out a massage chair to my left. My son was standing beside me on my right. I picked up an item at the same time my son did, and we started playing tug-o-war with it. I said in a funny voice “Would you just let go of it, already?” At that moment, I noticed my son standing on the other side of the display, six feet away, shaking his head, mortified. I think “If Chloe is in the chair, and Drew is over there…” Holding the other end of my box is a short, very elderly woman is snarling at me. I let go, saying “Merry Christmas! It’s yours!”
- I walked into the men’s room at an airport and was surprised to find only stalls and no urinals. Then it occurred to me I was in the women’s restroom. I quickly exited. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone was in there at the moment.
- Because I hear only low-range sounds (vowels, rumblings, knocks on doors, trains, etc.), I often get fooled by the phonetics of the English language. A few examples:
- Porcelain: I thought (mistakenly) it was pronounced pork-a-lean. In college, I told a friend his brushes were by the pork-a-lean sink. “What sink, Tim? PORK-a-lean? Like oink oink?” Um, no? That’s not how you say it?
- Yacht: A few years ago, my son and I were talking about boats. I mentioned something about yakts. My son says, “What was that, Dad?” I knew I had said something wrong. Dang! “It’s pronounced ‘yot’.” That’s what I said! “No, there is no “k” sound in there. It’s just like y-o-t.”
- Cher: It’s not chair, but sheh
- Rachel: The opposite applies here. The “ch” is pronounced like an “sh”. It’s not a racial thing, but Rachel. Ugh! How am I supposed to know when a “ch” is a “ch” or “sh”?!
- More “ch” trickery: Charlotte is an “sh”, but Charleston is a “ch”.
- I thought the “h” in chai was silent, and thus pronounced with a “k” sound, just like thai is pronounced with a hard “t”. Nope!
- I told someone to keep an eye on their qway. Huh? Oh, you mean queue? Geez! What’s with all the extra letters? Queue and cue sound identical? Why? So confusing!
- “H” is a killer: Hugh, herb, herbivore. No “h” sound. “Huey”? Yep, say the “h”. Right?
- I take pains to avoid words that I’m not so sure about anymore. Is gibberish with a hard “g” or a “j”? I always forget. When talking, I have an imaginary ticker tape running a few words ahead of my mouth in case I need to do a quick substitution if I’m in doubt of a word’s pronunciation.
- I have also learned to keep my hands close to my body to avoid embarrassment. For example, I was asking for directions in a store. The clerk said, “It’s over that way.” To confirm, I pointed to my right, but didn’t realize that a woman had come up beside me. I ended up poking her in the nose. I hate it when that happens.
Q: Tell us about your painting career. How did you get started? When did you know you wanted to make art as your vocation?
Tim: My father is also a professional artist, so I grew up seeing him do amazing things on a canvas. I learned not only technique, but effort. I have always loved to draw; it came naturally. My parents fed my appetite for creating with a steady supply of paper and crayons/pencils/markers. Dad (William Chambers) was always happy to teach me, and he was a very good teacher, and I soaked it up. Of course, I jumped at any opportunity to turn a school assignment into an art project, and my dad was great at coming up with new ways to tie art into the project. Teachers liked the artistic approach, too.
I was fortunate to land at a high school with a phenomenal art department, with three devoted teachers. I worked fast, and it didn’t take more than a few weeks to be ahead of the assignments, and my teacher just fed me projects ranging from drawing, printmaking, lithography, metals, and more. I couldn’t have asked for a better art experience in a public high school. Between my dad and my art teachers, I was given a wonderful opportunity to grow and discover my bent. It saddens me to see that the arts are the first to feel the budget axe in today’s schools.
My high school teachers, mainly Vince Sebastian, did a superb job at encouraging and preparing students for college. They also focused on the annual Scholastic art competition. As a result, I ended up winning the top national award, and also received several scholarships to schools around the country.
Joshua & Cayla, Oil on Linen by Timothy Chambers
Tim is among the world’s best at outdoor portraits
College took an unusual turn after the first year. After enjoying a high level of instruction from my dad and high school teachers, college was a huge disappointment. The emphasis went from high-quality performance to psychobabble. All work, regardless of quality and skill, was valid, for all art had merit simply based on individuality. I can’t think of another discipline where this standard is accepted.
As a result, my dad sought out other options. Over the next seven years, I studied with great teachers and painters all over the USA, including The Harris School of Art in Nashville, Richard Lack’s atelier in Minneapolis, Henry Hensche at the Cape School in Provincetown, Sebastian Capella in San Diego, and Cedric Egeli in Annapolis. I learned to be an artist by day, and attended college at night.
I turned pro shortly after getting married in 1990.
Q: What made you decide to choose portraiture as a career?
Tim: I followed in my father’s footsteps. Having seen my father carve successful careers as both one of Chicago’s top illustrators in the 60’s and 70’s, and then as one of America’s top portrait artists, I had a glimpse of both genres. Illustration was fast, and lent itself to a variety of expressions, but it was also an “I need it yesterday” type of pace. Portraiture was a diametrical change, as I watched my dad work for weeks (instead of overnight) on a piece, and as a result there was a depth and richness to painting that really appealed to me. Looking back now, I didn’t realize I had a penchant for a challenge even in my teens, for when Dad and I talked about my career, and I said I wanted to paint portraits, he said, “Tim, portraiture is the hardest of the painting professions. People are difficult to paint well. That’s why portrait is often referred to as the ‘King of art.'” I recall saying, “Well, then, that’s what I want to do.”
From the start, people intrigue me. Every person has a story, a God-given dignity, an eternal intrigue about them that appeals to me. Portraiture is not the easiest, but easy isn’t a draw for me. And it’s never boring. No two portraits are the same, and my dad and I are both guilty of “reinventing the wheel” with every portrait. Dad (William Chambers) and I regularly talk shop, and I am forever grateful for our relationship both on and off the easel. :)
Q: Is portrait painting a lucrative, steady vocation?
Tim: Portraiture is a luxury, so right off the bat that defines your market to a segment that has expendable income and therefore are less affected by economic swings. My clientele are people that appreciate and able to enjoy finer things. It is hard to say that without sounding smug, but there is no room for arrogance here. I paint portraits first and foremost because I love painting people. I truly enjoy getting to know people. Sometimes I think if I was a writer, I would interview everyone I meet and write their story. Everyone has a story to tell.
The other aspect of working with affluent clientele is that they often are educated on what constitutes good art and therefore afford an artist the respect and the freedom to do what they’re good at. My best portraits are the ones where the client said “Hey, you’re the professional. Do your thing. I don’t want to get in the way.” There is a mutual respect in place, and it makes for a great working environment, enabling me to really hone in on the subject’s personality, demeanor, mannerisms, and their story (if they share it with me!). I believe painting is a conversation between artist and subject. The more freedom a client gives, the less micro-managing, the better the portrait.
Q: Do you mind my asking what do your portrait fees run?
Tim: The most common format is the three-quarter size portrait, which includes hands but not the full body (no feet), and my three-quarter portrait in oil is $50,000 for children and $65,000 for adults. Fees run up or down from there for head and shoulders or full-figure portraits. I also consider commissions in pastel and charcoal upon request.
Q: Are those fees par for the course for a commissioned portrait?
Tim: No more than a Lamborghini is the typical cost for a car. There are Fords and there are Bentleys. When I began my career, I sold Head & Shoulders for $1,000 and Three-Quarter Figures for $2,000. My current fees reflect a lifetime of painting and learning, a great pedigree, and fortunately, I’m good at what I do. My clients are paying not for the paint and canvas, but the talent and wisdom of knowing what to do with the paint on the canvas. It’s not a haughty statement, but simply the result of the joy of the pursuit. I’m grateful, honored, and humbled to be a successful artist.
Q: What did turning pro consist of?
Tim: I did sample portraits of my daughter, neighbors, friends, along with a few local clients to build up body of work. I then sent portfolios of my work to the top portrait agencies for review, and was accepted by portrait agencies in New York, Birmingham, and Raleigh. It was exciting to finally go from student to pro!
Q: When your career was underway, did you receive work immediately, or did it take a while for the people to learn about you and for the momentum to build?
Tim: Fortunately for me and my family, it actually took off quickly. I had been advised by my dad to not rush into turning pro (he said “Remember, you’ll be competing with me,” and he was really, really good!), so by the time I submitted my work, I had trained for a long time. I also had my dad and Cedric Egeli critique my work extensively as I was building my portfolio, so I didn’t move forward until I had their thumbs-up. They had also advised me “to be the best artist in your price range” to reduce competition. Turned out they were right- word got out about “this young new artist who studied with Bill and Cedric and he’s really good and really cheap.” So, things took off quickly. I felt like a star, and it was thrilling to get paid for what I love to do. And of course, it made my wife Kim happy to see my career off to a good start.
Q: I read in your CV that you won an award at the National Portrait Invitational in 1993, early in your career. Tell me about that.
Tim: There’s a funny story behind that. My portrait “Ashley” won Second Place. It was a great honor, as competition consisted of 1400 of my professional peers, and here I was a newcomer and finishing at the top of the competition. The funny part is that my good friend Carl Samson won First Place. What’s so funny about that? Well, I had to twist his arm to enter the competition, and then of course he goes on to win First Place, and of course, he deserved it. Carl and I studied with Richard Lack together ten years earlier and became close friends. Those awards helped both of our careers in terms of recognition and respect.
Q: What is your portrait procedure? If I were a client, what should I expect?
Tim: A typical commission looks like this: initial phone conversations to clarify purpose, vision for the painting, expectations, reservations, and scheduling a sitting. The sitting can take place at the client’s home, office, or favorite retreat worldwide. My goal with commissioned work is first and foremost to make sure I completely understand what the client has in mind, so at the sitting I ask a lot of questions, pay close attention to the photos and artwork in their homes and offices, take a lot of mental notes, building a vision for what the painting will look like, which I then convey to the client. A photo session is the next step, followed by the client and I both reviewing the results, selecting a pose and setting that we’re both excited about. A second sitting takes place the next day for a painting session in which I capture the true color, of which photography is incapable. I then have everything I need- personal connection with my subject, good reference material, and my color study- and return to my studio to complete the painting.
Upon completion, I then submit images of the painting to the client for approval or necessary tweaks. Upon approval, a date is arranged for a special unveiling of the finished, beautiful painting.
Charles W. Colson, Oil on Linen by Timothy Chambers
Q: Was your sight an issue when you started your career?
Tim: No, not at all. I have Usher Syndrome, a degenerative disease of the eyes and ears. I have always been hard of hearing, and hearing aids enable me to communicate fairly well, though audiologists have always told me that I hear and speak much better than I should (per my audiograms). I guess I carry that “doing the impossible” into all areas of my life.
I find that most people, including my clients, are very accommodating when it comes to being patient with me in repeating things, facing me when speaking (I lip-read), and so on. And of course, no one has a problem with a deaf artist. I’m there to paint a portrait, not write a sonata!
Q: Does your lack of vision affect your ability to paint or pull off a portrait?
Tim: No, it hasn’t. Conversely, these days I am painting the best portraits of my career. I employ a lifetime of knowledge into every brushstroke, and my mind is sharp (so far!), so experience flows easily onto the canvas. To compensate for the lack of peripheral vision, I have to stand back from the canvas to take in the entire canvas; up close, I only see a small area, about 6″ in diameter. Painting can be a good aerobic workout.
Color-wise, I can see very well outdoors, and thanks to learning from Henry Hensche and Cedric Egeli, better than most. Few artists can capture the true color of nature, especially in a portrait. Funny that a guy who is blind is one of the few! Indoors, there are a few colors that are more difficult to see, but good natural or the right artificial lights remedy that.
Q: Has your hearing remained steady over the years?
Tim: Not exactly, as there has been a steady but very slow decline over my lifetime. I still get by with hearing aids, which have improved technologically a lot over the past decade. I have what they call a “bass curve”, meaning that without hearing aids, I can only hear very low sounds, and nothing of voice or or higher-pitch sounds. I have worn hearing aids since I was 5 years old, and am pretty good at lip reading.
Q: And your sight- has that changed or remained steady over the years?
Tim: My vision is another story compared to my hearing. The vision has been a more noticeable decline that affects my life much more so than my hearing loss has or does. My peripheral vision is pretty much gone. The RP has progressed right up to the edge of my central vision, which I hope to retain. I have enough vision, however, to be painting the best I have ever painted. I’m grateful.
Q: Has the vision been something you’ve dealt with since you were a child, as you have with the hearing loss?
Tim: No, I didn’t know about the vision issue until I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa and ultimately with Usher Syndrome when I was thirty years old. I was as active as any kid (and maybe more so). Even at the age of 30, I had no idea of any limitations other than not hearing as well
Q: How did being diagnosed at age 30 affect you?
Tim: It rocked my world, turned it upside down. I had just won top place in an international portrait competition when I was diagnosed with Usher Syndrome. Add to the disappointing news a doctor with no empathy or bedside manner, and it was scary. I had shown the doctor my portfolio after the tests and diagnosis. He thumbed through a few pages, then flippantly said “You better find a new profession” and thrust the portfolio back into my hands as if nothing had happened. Yet, in that moment, all my dreams had come caving in. I felt like I was going to be blind in a matter of months. All my life I knew I was going to be an artist. That’s how I thought- as an artist, as someone who sees.
Q: I’m sorry for the diagnosing doctor’s poor bedside manner. Did that bother you?
Tim: It bothered me immensely. It took two years of battling through fears before I finally wasn’t scared of the future. Here I was expecting a few words of encouragement to press on despite the diagnosis, and instead I am given a dire prognosis. Everyone seeks a favorable prognosis that there is hope in the wake of a startling diagnosis. In the wake of the news, I was looking for hope. He gave me despair. In fact, an assistant who overheard the remark quickly pulled me aside to a private room and said, “I heard what the doctor just told you. Try and forget what he said.”
I wish it were so simple. We humans are more affected by bad news than good. Studies show that bad news wears off a lot slower than good news, as bad or unpleasant news is more resistant to revision than good events; we tend to turn over the bad things in our head more so and for a longer time, too. That was certainly my case. It took me two years before I finally was free from the fear of the doctor’s dire prognosis playing out. In that span of time, I didn’t get one full night’s sleep. Imagining the worse, I struggled with thinking other negative health issues were happening. Two years’ in, my family physician, after a thorough physical examination and tests proved I was for all intents and purposes healthy, said, “Tim, the issue is a battle in my mind. Physically, you’re in good health. Faith is a player and solution here.”
I tell a bit more detail of this journey at 17 Degrees: Tim’s Story.
Q: A doctor’s demeanor have such an effect upon people. It’s not so easy to simply dismiss it, is it?
Tim: When a person is diagnosed with a life-altering disease, illness, or condition, a few things happen. First, you are unexpectedly knocked off the “normal” path. The things you took for granted- dreams, goals, plans- are suddenly not a given. My life was turned upside down when diagnosed with Usher Syndrome. I thought I was on a path to be a great portrait artist, painting Presidents and the like. When the doctor says, “You better find another profession,” suddenly all your plans come into doubt. “Is he right? Will I be blind in 6 months? Oh my goodness! For my entire life, I’ve assumed I am going to be an artist…and now it’s up in smoke, just like that?!” Life can change in a heartbeat, though I think most are like me and think “it won’t happen to me.” And just like that, you’re different. You’re not part of the “everyone” crowd. You’ve gone from having life by the tail, running with confidence, to hanging on to life by its tail, moving trepiditiously, wondering what’s in store.
When a patient is doing their best to find positives to build upon, working hard to live proactively and confidently, perhaps just to get from one day to the next, and runs into a doctor that bluntly states the facts, it can be very discouraging. Just recently I asked a doctor about why I couldn’t see something I used to, and he said, “Because your eyes are bad, that’s why.” Ouch. Duh, I knew that. But couldn’t you consider who I am, and not who you are? Doctors can still speak truthfully, not giving false hope, keeping in mind what patient’s struggle to find positives. They can focus on the abilities the patient does possess, rather than what’s lost.
It comes down to this: do you want to give a person what they need to walk forward, eyes fixed ahead, or do you want to sap their hope and strength and courage by reminding them of what can no longer be retrieved? A verse in the bible that has always been a good reminder is Hebrews 11:1- “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Q: What was the catalyst that helped you overcome your fears?
Tim: That appointment with my family physician was a huge part. He was right- faith was key to overcoming the fears. I couldn’t live until I dealt with the fears. I did already have a faith in God, in Christ, but it is of no use unless used. I began to seek truths to fight the fears. I called every one of my past doctors, updated them, then asked for their professional opinion, since they knew me. I went to Johns Hopkins Eye Institute to get a second opinion from the best of the best in the area of retinal research.
I had a wall in my studio where I began to write down truths as I came across them. There were times when I was painting, and out of the blue, one fearful whisper after another would have me reeling, feeling like I was on a two-mile drop on a roller coaster. It took my breath away. I would read the truths on my wall, and steadily recover. Truths that reminded me to focus on today, not tomorrow. As Clint Eastwood said, “Tomorrow is promised to no one.” Jonathan Swift gave me a quote I live by to this day- “May you live all the days of your life.” A line from the book of Hebrews promises that God is a faithful friend and companion, nonstop. I began to ruminate on these and others, and my actions, my life, began to move from being afraid of what if to living. Today, my motto is “I do, because I can.”
By the way, it’s amazing how different a doctor’s perspective can be. When I told Dr. Irene Maumenee, of Johns Hopkins, of the initial prognosis (and I love her response), she exclaimed, “Stop painting?! Why would you do that?! No- you paint until you can’t. Then you’ll find something else wonderful to do.” That’s the encouragement I needed. She is an example of what I try to offer to others- press on, live, with what you have, what you’re able, today.
My dad put doctors in humorous perspective. He asked me “What do you call the person who graduated at the top of their class in medical school? A doctor. What do you call the person who graduated at the bottom of their class? A doctor.”
Q: What do you love most about painting?
Tim: I love the fluidity of the medium. Pushing paint around, letting colors intertwine amongst each other to create new effects. It’s like freezing spontaneity in action. I also love the ability to mix any color I can think of. Color is a big deal to me.
Q: What are you favorite subjects to paint?
Tim: People and places. I love being outdoors, so it follows that I love painting en plein air, and just about anywhere- urban or rural, small towns. But not suburbia; too predictable, too cookie-cutter in style. The suburbs gave me a great place to grow up, but they’re not a good painting subject in my opinion.
I love places where I can see layers of land- a foreground, middle ground, and layers of land/mountains against the sky. I also love painting the shorelines at sunrise or sunset. For portraits, my favorites are those at the beach or in a garden.
Q: If money and time were not an issue, and you could paint anything, anywhere, what would you do?
Tim: Kim and I and Chloe drove from Virginia to California a few summers ago, and we were completely enthralled with America’s beauty. I’d like to do the trip again, but take six months to capture the rich variety of beauty. It’s exhilarating to see and paint.
Lately, though, my heart and mind have turned towards injustice and suffering. I desire to use my gifts to create an awareness of people that are persecuted and abused throughout our world. Our American culture seems sheltered and aloof from the suffering that many go through. The stories are easily found through the media, but we’re more attuned to the latest smartphones than we are to assisting those that are suffering. I’m not sure if I can make a difference, but I aim to try by creating good, passionate paintings depicting the other side of things. That’s the injustice aspect. The other aspect is something familiar to most, if not all, of us- suffering and grief. Life can be hard. People need to be heard and loved.
Q: What is your favorite medium? Which mediums have you worked with?
Tim: My favorite medium is oil paint, for the reasons stated above. However, I often think I would have loved working in clay as a sculptor. I don’t know if stone would have agreed with me. I think the lack of being able to turn back and undo something would be so stressful! That’s why I think, hands down, Michelangelo is the most amazing artist ever. Amazing work with no second chances.
Q: What other genres you paint in addition to portraits?
Tim: I really enjoy painting landscapes, as I love the outdoors (especially sunshine and warm temps!) and am enthralled with color. That is why my favorite portraits are outdoor portraits; to me they are very natural, relaxed, and the outdoor setting and color, when painted true, lend a sense of liveliness to a portrait.
Q: Color is obviously key to your painting and your creative heart. Have you always been good at capturing true color, or is that something learned?
Tim: Seeing and interpreting color is definitely something learned, though I’m gathering that there’s a bit of intrinsic skill to being able to execute true color on the canvas. I find that very few artists can translate true color to their canvases. I was fortunate to study with Henry Hensche, whom I have yet to find any American, past or present, who saw or sees color as good as Henry did. In fact, Henry understood color so well that even when he was drawing with charcoal, he said he drew the color, not merely the value of his subject. I studied with Henry up at the Cape School in Provincetown, Massachusetts during the summers in the mid-eighties. I met Cedric Egeli there, and that’s when he invited me to study under him. I befriended a host of great artists at the Cape School.
There’s a funny story of my first encounter with Henry. My best friend Kevin and I had drove 22 hours from Chicago to the Cape. Henry has students paint simple still-lifes consisting of colored blocks for the purpose of gaining a color sense in various light (sunny, cloudy, morning, afternoon, dusk, indoors, etc.). I had a yellow block in my setup, and for the life of me, I couldn’t get it right. I was so new to color, that I had even tried using black to shade the yellow. Black and yellow mixed make green. Far from being the right color. I was at a loss.
Henry comes over to give Kevin and I a critique. He takes one look at us and knows we’re newbies. He called us “the two innocent boys that knew nothing.” He mentioned Monet, to which I responded, “Moe who?” I was not only innocent. I was ignorant! Rather than try and explain, he gave us an assignment: “Go to the Gardner and see the Monets this weekend. Then come back and tell me what you saw.”
The next moment was one of those “Aha!” moments that flipped my life around, pointed me in a direction, gave me a vision. Henry took my palette, and using just about every color on the palette, he painted that yellow block on my canvas so that it was alive, reflecting the sunny June morning that it was. Henry used my reds, magentas, and blues to capture the reality of the beauty. Suddenly, I realized every color was evident and permissible. He had blown away the old, restricted rules that kept me from seeing. It was amazing and life-changing! Truly, color is what sets me and a few others apart from many, perhaps most, artists today.
Q: Is your wife Kim involved in your business? Is she creative?
Tim: Kim is a big part of my life and my art, the latter both in terms of business, inspiration, and feedback. I was drawn to Kim in high school because she had spunk, a mind of her own (and a delightful and smart one at that), and life is never boring with her. She brings candid feedback to my work and has a good eye for beauty in nature. Often, she shows me a beautiful spot and I end up painting it. She and I can run on the same wavelength creatively speaking. We love visiting museums together; she knows good art when she sees it.
One of the things our family has done is we all go out and paint a landscape. Even though I’m the only one who’s a painter, we all have so much fun, we really need to do it more. It’s fun to see each of our interpretations of the same scene.
Kim also handles most of the correspondence with clients. She has a great eye for detail, a multi-tasker, which I am not. I prefer to focus on one thing, and lack the patience for too many details. I’m a “gist” kind of person; I get the big idea (which is essential in a good painting!). Kim relishes details. We’re a great team.
Q: What are you currently working on?
Tim: I have three projects I am working on at the moment, four, counting portrait commissions. I’ve also got my sights set on Ireland. I’ll explain.
The first project is a series of paintings of Washington, D.C. depicting various places that have caught my eye in our beautiful Capitol. This series came about after Kim and I paid a visit to the Phillips Collection in D.C. I resonated with paintings by Pierre Bonnard, Camille Pissarro, John Twachtman, and Gustave Courbet. We loved how the artists captured the spirit of the scene, whether it be a pure landscape or a figurative scene, such as Renoir’s delightful Luncheon at the Boating Party. Driving through Washington after our visit, I saw one scene after another that was just waiting to be painted. I wanted to yell “Stop! I need to paint that!”
The second project is also outdoors, a series of plein air landscapes of California and Virginia locations. I love both places. They are entirely different in terrain, vegetation, and color, each exquisitely beautiful in their own right. Californians love the rich greens and blues of Virginia’s mountains and valleys, and Virginians love the raw, warm yellow earth of southern California’s coast, sierras, and valleys. And the trees! How different! Towering palms swaying in the California breezes contrast with the towering maples and oaks and pines of Virginia. I am striving to capture the distinction of both places.
The third is a studio project came unexpectedly, and something that has really stirred my heart and of which I am very excited about. A story chronicling the humanitarian efforts of a group of German doctors going into the war-torn areas of Iraq, Iran, and Syria and rescuing women and children who have been captured, tortured, and/or abused by radicals caught my attention. I was mesmerized by a photograph of one of the doctors, Dr. Jan Kizilhan, with a young woman who was badly burned. She had been abused and raped by IS terrorists. Though she was safe in a refugee camp, she thought she heard the voice of her IS (Islamic State) captors, and refusing to again be raped, doused herself with gasoline and set herself on fire, burning off her lips, nose, eyelids, ears, and hair, and badly burning her hands as well. Dr. Kizilhan brought Yasmin and her mother to Germany for treatment and healing. They have rescued over 1,100 women and children to date. My painting of Dr. Kizilhan and Yasmin is appropriately titled Please Don’t Look…Away.
Shelly and Her Daughters, Oil on Linen,
by Timothy Chambers
As I mentioned earlier, my heart and mind have turned towards the issue of injustice. I desire to use my gifts to bring attention to the horrible persecution and abuse that routinely take place throughout our world, including the heinous, cowardly acts against humanity and try and restore dignity to those that have been robbed of it. I refer to this series of paintings as Injustice.
I mentioned Ireland. One of my favorite painters is Robert Henri, who preceded me almost exactly 100 years. Irish painter John Butler Yeats, father of the poet William Butler Yeats, invited Henri to Ireland to paint in County Mayo, which is where some of my ancestors hail from. Kim and I are planning on spending a summer in Ballycastle in Northern Ireland painting and getting to know the Irish. I plan on recreating Henri’s beautiful experience of painting portraits of the local children (Mrs. Henri provided the children with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for sitting for the portraits; Kim is an amazing cook and will no doubt feed our portrait subjects well).
Q: What will you do with these works once completed?
Tim: I would like to see the California and Virginia landscapes in a solo exhibit before releasing them to galleries. The Washington, D.C. paintings will be sold through a Washington gallery. I am not sure the path the Injustice paintings will take. I have a few ideas, but we’ll see what unfolds. I am planning on showcasing the Irish portraits and landscapes, along with a video capturing the experience.
Q: Have you taught art?
Tim: I’ve taught quite a bit. My teachers all modeled the idea of passing on what you’ve learned so others can enjoy art. I enjoy teaching workshops, as I like interacting with students and helping them overcome hurdles that keep them from seeing better and responding on canvas.
I also founded Iguana Art Academy (iguanaartacademy.com) to help people enjoy art anytime, anywhere, at hardly any cost. I never thought you could teach art online, but I was wrong. If you can articulate a concept, then you can teach online. I also learned a key element is “I do, you do.” Therefore, each lesson includes a step-by-step demonstration of the assignment. Students learn the principles and concepts of good art by doing. Very cool. You can learn more about the school at iguanaartacademy.com.
Q: Where is Iguana Art Academy located?
Tim: Everywhere! Iguana Art Academy is an online school, so anyone can learn art anywhere, 24/7. The teachers hail from a variety of places, and we’re adding more over time, both nationally and internationally.
Q: Is there a story behind the unusual name of Iguana for the school?Tim: There’s a funny story behind that. Initially, it was going to be something like “Chambers Art Academy” and I was trying to come up with a catchy logo. I thought through successful logos that came to mind and one was the Lacoste alligator. I thought of other lizards…iguana came to mind. Then I said it aloud: “iguana draw…”, “iguana paint…”. Then I punched it into an online pronunciation assistant. I laughed when I heard “iguana paint” spoken in Portuguese: “I gwanna paaaint.” It was so catchy! Coming up with a cool logo that people would proudly wear was easy.
Q: What do you like most about teaching?
Tim: Like any teacher, it’s a thrill to see the light bulbs go on, the “Aha!” moments. I love it when I help expand a person’s perception of what they are capable of. Their confidence, happiness, and outlook grows. Casting a vision is more about my teaching than learning a new skill oftentimes.
Q: What question do you get asked most by students?
Tim: “How do I know when I am done?”
Q: And the answer to that question?
Tim: “I’ll tell you.” Seriously, the answer begins with them asking their own question- “What is it that I love about my subject? What strikes me?” I usually instruct students to come up with one or two adjectives that describe what they like about their subject. That then becomes their concept, which is determines the answer to their question. I.e., they are done when they have achieved their concept, not when they’ve put every detail in, or covered every inch of the canvas, but when they have effectively said what they felt about their subject.
Q: If you were to give advice to someone considering an art career, what would you tell them?
Tim: I would say make sure you love creating so much that you cannot live without it, that you value it more than material ease and comfort, and be sure to take business and marketing courses, or put aside enough money to pay someone to do promote you. Being an artist is hard, not for the faint of heart!
Q: You have a new book released. Tell me about it.
Tim: It’s titled Seeing Beautiful, released June 2017. I am totally excited about it. I hope it will help a lot of people to find healing from my writing and joy from their creating. It’s available at bookstores worldwide and on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and more. You can also learn more at SeeingBeautiful.com.
You know, I had no idea what I was getting into. It took everything I had- every minute of time, every ounce of energy, every last squeeze of creative juice- to produce the book. I had a tight deadline to meet, and for two months I was working about 18 hours a day on the book. Heck, I was dreaming the book! My wife and kids were incredibly gracious and encouraging through the process. Though my studio is at home, she said I was in another world during that time.
However, when I first held the book in my hands, I was so very pleased. My neighbor introduced me to Adobe InDesign, an app for book layout. I was all thumbs when I started, but I learned enough to lay out the book cover to cover. The publisher (BroadStreet Publishing) did an awesome job at tying everything together and proofing the text.
When I received my copy of the book, it was a surreal experience, as I had the same experience I get when I revisit a painting I did long ago- I recall every stroke of the brush, like replaying a deep conversation word for word. When I leafed through my book for the first time, I remembered all the decisions I wrestled through. Working through designs and compositions, writing up the Art Tips I have throughout the book, cognizant of the novices wanting to enjoy coloring without being intimidated by the blank page awaiting their touch. Digging for appropriate quotes in keeping with the chapter theme and illustrations. It all turned out perfectly. I am my own toughest critic, and I am very humbly proud of how it turned out. I hope people find joy in its pages and truly begin to see beautiful.
Though it is classified as an “adult coloring book”, I think it is much, much more than that. Kim and I had browsed through a lot of adult coloring books at bookstores to get acquainted with the genre. I also met coloring enthusiasts and asked what a perfect coloring book would consist of. The result is a book that isn’t merely blank pages awaiting color, but also offers inspiration, encouragement, a story, and guidance on how to color. It’s in a genre all its own!
Q: An adult coloring book? Really? Isn’t that a bit below “professional grade”?
Tim: That’s exactly what I thought! I have two really good friends- Bill and Amy- who have been in the publishing business for over 25 years, and almost two years ago they approached me with the idea of doing an adult coloring book. I was completely unaware of the recent adult coloring book phenomenon. After a quick education on what they were about, I told them, without trying to be too stuffy, “No. I don’t do coloring books. Give me a break. I’m a portrait artist! The opposite end of the spectrum! Thanks, but no thanks.”
But Bill and Amy persisted, sending me emails telling me the success stories of one ACB (adult coloring book) after another. They would include page spreads and ask “You could do this, couldn’t you? And probably better, right?” My response was always the same- “No. I don’t do that kind of thing. Obviously, there are a ton of artists for you to select from who would love the work, guys.”
Q: You obviously gave in to creating the book. What brought the change in tune?
Tim: The kicker was when Bill and Amy happened upon a post about my journey as an artist afflicted with a degenerative eye and ear disease, “17 Degrees: Tim’s Story”. They read that and said “We have an idea. How about you do a coloring book about your journey? Your story is inspiring, and no doubt would be encouraging to a lot of people. Will you reconsider?”
When they changed the focus from “do it because you’re a good artist” to “do it to encourage people,” it caught my attention. And not because I’m this great guy, but because I know how much other people’s stories of overcoming, of persevering, of dealing with heartbreaking news, and even using the seeming setbacks as a springboard to grow, well those stories have been a great encouragement to me, and I saw this as a chance to finally do something deeper, more worthwhile than merely produce a nice painting. It was wild to think that my biggest weakness could actually be the most powerful thing about me. So, I told them I’d give it some thought.artist” to “do it to encourage people,” it caught my attention. And not because I’m this great guy, but because I know how much other people’s stories of overcoming, of persevering, of dealing with heartbreaking news, and even using the seeming setbacks as a springboard to grow, well those stories have been a great encouragement to me, and I saw this as a chance to finally do something deeper, more worthwhile than merely produce a nice painting. It was wild to think that my biggest weakness could actually be the most powerful thing about me. So, I told them I’d give it some thought.
Faith in Christ is a vital part of my life, and this theme- i.e. strength in weakness- resonates throughout the Bible. I just never saw myself in that way. But for the first time, I saw that perhaps God was working in my life in a way I had never imagined. I certainly wouldn’t have scripted it this way.
Q: So, what happened next after you agreed to give it a try?
Tim: First thing I did was browse the ACB’s on Amazon. The thing that surprised me at first was how many there were. Thousands! And on top of that, of Amazon’s 20 top-selling books, six of them were adult coloring books! Seriously? Yes, this was a serious business. I mean, Johanna Basford’s books have sold about 20 million already. Sheesh. That’s a lot of books. And I noticed a wide range of quality. Johanna’s were at the top, no doubt, and then it rapidly went down from there. Okay, I thought, I need to see these first hand.
So, my wife Kim and I headed to Borders to check them out. I didn’t need to search hard, as they were on display the moment you walked in the store. There were hundreds, many with similar-looking designs consisting of flowers, gardens, animals, fish, birds, and a few insects. There were also themed books based on famous movies such as Star Wars. Again, Johanna Basford’s were the best out there, her’s having a nice sophisticated look and good, careful drawing, which few others came close to matching. Johanna’s were the standard I built upon.
The next day I contacted my friends and said I’d give it a serious shot, but I had no idea where to begin. I had always painted with a clear concept in mind, whether it be a portrait or a landscape. For this project, though, I really had no idea where to begin. I needed to conceptualize a purpose, a reason.
Q: What did that process look like?
Tim: Well, the process of coming up with a theme for the book was already somewhat in place with the fact that my 17 Degrees story was the catalyst for the book. However, I didn’t think anyone would find a play-by-play narrative of my eye disease journey very interesting. Perhaps for a few paragraphs, but for an entire book? So, I took a different approach. I thought about the things I have learned from the journey of dealing with the disease. Suddenly terms like perseverance and hope and joy came into play. I ran this by my friends, who liked the approach, and we then narrowed my list of topics to Beauty, Change, Perspective, Vision, Joy, Perseverance, Action, and Dessert, giving us the eight chapters of the book. From there, I began to write the text of the book, jotting down visual ideas that came to mind as I wrote.
Q: You actually wrote the book, as well as illustrated it?
Tim: Yes, because I must make things difficult! No, really- I do oftentimes make things more difficult but that’s because I’m an original thinker type (see Adam Grant’s book Originals; as my wife says- “That’s Tim.”). I am more comfortable reinventing the wheel that doing the same thing. The latter seems rote. So, yes, I looked at the other books out there, did a little poll-taking, and concluded that my friends were right- a coloring book with a story would be appealing. I ended up writing two facets, however. First, a series of short chapter essays, each with a message. Secondly, I included helpful art tips throughout the book to help people have fun with coloring. My experience with teaching shows me that a blank page is intimidating. People want a little guidance and direction to get rolling.
Bill and Amy were immensely helpful in helping plan a work schedule so I could fit the book in amidst my easel work. My wife Kim and Amy proofread my drafts along the way. It was a group effort getting the creative process off the ground.
Q: It sounds like Seeing Beautiful is a coloring book with a message. What do you want readers to hear?
Tim: I hope people will be encouraged by my experience and find hope and strength to live outwardly, to see the beauty of life, not letting the hardships, disappointments, and darkness rob them of living. The chapter titles give a clue to the content: Beauty, Change, Perspective, Imagination, Vision, Joy, Perseverance, Action, Dessert.
Q: You brought up the strength/weakness theme. How does this play out in your life?
Tim: With resistance! I don’t know anyone, nor have I read any books or seen any movies where someone embraces weakness, even for a positive end. We strive, we reach, we aspire for greater things. And I’m not speaking of material things; they are just things. I’m referring to striving for things that build worthy intangibles such as character, discipline, success, victory. And we assume the path to get there requires the positive, willful actions of endurance, discipline, deprivation of superfluous or distracting things, strength, etc. Weakness? No, that would be the opposite of what we’re aiming for, right?
Yet, weakness accompanied by hope, trust, vision, faith…can be a very powerful thing. With the right mindset, one can learn a lot through weakness, i.e., when your best isn’t enough, when you don’t have anything else to give. We discover other resources, skills, character, that we never noticed before. Sometimes you discover that what someone else really needs is far from what you had assessed, and yet it is totally within your possession. For me, my strength was painting. My weakness is my sight. How the twain shall meet? Seems a paradox! And it is. My weakness has forced me to not take things for granted, to celebrate what I do have, to focus not on career success (at least as I had envisioned success), and instead focus on the underpinnings of what a successful life looks like. It’s affected my outlook, including how I see people and the world. My paintings are much better, fuller, richer than since I found out I had Usher Syndrome.
Q: And what have you found to be a successful life on your journey?
Tim: Ha! Such an easy question! Right. The question that has been asked forever. :) Of course, no matter how many times it has been asked and answered, we need to ask it for ourselves.
I am finding as I get older (my mind thinks it is 15 years younger than my body) that simpler is better. When I was younger, I lived like I had 500 years ahead of me. I believed I could do anything and everything. I so wish I understood the limits of time and energy- my time and energy. Though I may have boundless energy (more when younger), time puts the breaks on ambition. I have an ever-creating mindset. I think in terms of possibilities. “How can that be improved?” is often the thought that pops into my head as I see new things and places. It’s a fun game, but I have learned it can also distract me from what I am both capable of in terms of time and talent.
I remember in the movie “City Slickers” the character Curly eschewed a small but huge life-changing bit of wisdom. Billy Crystal’s character asked what the secret of life was, and Curly held up one old, crooked finger and said, “One thing.” Like Crystal, I said “What’s the one thing?!” Curly said “That’s for you to figure out.”
So, to answer your question, I am finding a successful life is knowing what is important, and succeeding at doing that one (or two or three) things well. For me it is ensuring that people know I love them, it is living like paradise is real, enjoying each moment and day as the gift they are, and knowing and using my gifts with joy, passion, and effort. I learned I can’t do everything, you can’t please everyone, and life is a given until it isn’t. Enjoy a select few things. Among my most favorite quotes that I live by is Jonathan Swift’s: “May you live all the days of your life.”
Q: I heard that you were featured in the NY Times bestseller Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. True?
Tim: Yes! It’s a fantastic book on getting through adversity and rediscovering joy on the other side of life’s hardships. It’s an honor to be included in this far-reaching book, as there are so, so many people who face overwhelming odds, sudden hard turns, deep losses. Sheryl and Adam have wrought a beautiful work to help bring hope to those facing adversity. An important partner to the book is the Option B forums on Facebook. They provide an amazing, intimate, safe community for those hurting to not only share their grief and struggles, but to encourage one another to press on and help each other get through the heartache and often-paralyzing grief.
I was featured in Option B’s chapter on building resilient children. My parents did a beautiful job at helping me to get past the stigma and obstacles of being a disabled kid by providing deep, unconditional love, offering a better perspective that pervades human ignorance, and humor to turn a liability into a creative asset. Also, Kim and I have been asked to be involved in the forums, as we can relate to hardship in a real way.
Q: You mentioned humor earlier in this interview. Did your parents foster this in you?
Tim: Very much so. My mom and my dad both had a great sense of humor. Witty, sometimes corny. I picked up both. I can slip a deadpan joke right past anyone (though I can be equally gullible), and I can be absurdly corner (my kids will say “That’s not funny, Dad. It’s ridiculous.”). My mom made it easy for me to laugh at myself, to not take myself too seriously. Dad had (and still has) a great knack for turning a bad thing into a funny thing. I have to share at least two examples to give you a taste of how funny and inspiring he is.
In grade school, you’re either very popular or you’re not. If you’re not, the best thing is to be invisible. The worse thing is to be known for something bad, for kids are ruthless at pegging someone with an unfortunate reputation, even if inaccurate. Being the only kid with hearing aids was often a subject of the wrong kind of attention. I kept my hair long just so I could hide the hearing aids and avoid unwanted attention.
When I came home after school one day my dad noticed I was troubled. Here’s the conversation:
DAD: Something wrong, Tim?
TIM: Yes. Some kid was staring at me in history class today, and then asked (in a condescending way) “What’s that THING in your ear, weirdo?” Ugh. I hate that, Dad. I hate it.
DAD: Sorry about that. I’ll tell you what to do next time that happens.
TIM: Punch him?
DAD: No. I’ve got a better idea. Next time someone’s staring at you, close your eyes like you’re concentrating, put your hand to your ear like the sportscasters do, and then do a fist pump while saying “YES! Cubs are up 2-1 in the 9th!”
Believe it or not, it worked like a charm. I went from feeling like a worm to kids being jealous that I was able to listen to the Cubs baseball games while they were all stuck enduring boring lectures! I never told anyone our secret, and of course, this is long before Bluetooth and iPhones.
Another example of Dad’s perspective came into play after an embarrassing high school date. My parents were crazy about me and my siblings, and we didn’t have much to hide. They were helpful, as you’ll see in this conversation:
DAD: Hey Tim. How was your date tonight?
TIM: Horrible. I kissed this girl tonight, and while kissing her, my hearing aids started squealing from feedback. Argh!!!
DAD: You know what she’s telling her mom right now?
TIM: Yeah-Tim Chambers is such a dork.
DAD: No. She’s saying “Mom, I kissed this boy tonight. I’ve seen fireworks before, but I’ve never heard sirens! He’s amazing. I think I like him.”
These are just a few examples of how my parents turned gloom into a smile. They planted the seeds to finding a better way to see and live life that sustained me in many ways. However, I needed more than humor when I was hit with the diagnosis of Usher Syndrome at age 30. That sent me into a tailspin that took me two years to escape.
Q: What fills your tank when not painting?
Tim: I enjoy being outdoors. I still try and play tennis, though even that has a humorous side to it because of my blindness. I know, you’re thinking how can a blind person play tennis. I can see exactly what I’m looking at, even if that is a very narrow range. I do a lot of scanning my environment to keep my bearings, and with tennis, I don’t need to fear running into someone so long as I stay on my side of the net and on my court! The funny part happens when the rally is over and I’m searching for the ball. I have a system, though, that works well. The other player helps me locate the ball by yelling out “clock coordinates,” like “7 o’clock medium!” or “2 o’clock short!” My position is the center of the clock, and the ball is at the hours of a clock (12 is the direction I am facing). Players on adjacent courts are usually quite bewildered, and sometimes amused at this.
I enjoy vigorous tasks such as digging and planting. It’s a nice change from the studio, and feeling my muscles burning and sweating up a storm makes me feel alive. Who knows what my body will allow me in the future, but for today, I do because I can. :)
I love a warm, sunny summer day. Helping a friend with a project is a good time. So is hiking the nearby Appalachian Trail with Kim and the kids (I am wondering if someday I can hike the entire 2200 miles of the AT with one of my kids…). I still love going to the batting cages or driving range (though I have no idea where the ball goes!). Swinging a bat or a racquet rightly just feels so good. And I still play catch with Kim and my kids; I just have to make sure I catch everything because if the ball hits the ground, I have no idea where it is (and then we do the “clock” game again).
For relaxation, I really enjoy sitting on a quiet patio with my bride, enjoying a cool drink and finger foods (fruit, cheese and crackers and a good sausage) and good conversation (with Kim, it’s always good conversation).
Q: Do you have a mission statement that you live by?
Q: And what might that be? Is your purpose the same, or does it change over time?
Tim: It is ever being refined, and sometimes redirected in a big way. One of my favorite courses in college was Philosophy. I loved how an argument consists of premises and a conclusion. If any of an argument’s premises (or assumptions) were false, then it rendered the conclusion invalid. I apply this principle to my life nonstop. I live based on certain conclusions, and I regularly have to update my premises, so my mission statement is always being refined! It’s like a game, and it keeps my awareness up.
Currently, I have a few things that shape my attitude and outlook. I mentioned that today I do because I can. This reminds me not to put off for tomorrow what I can do today and also not to worry about what I can do tomorrow. Just focus on what can I do today?
Others that I lean on are Jonathan Swift’s statement May you live all the days of your life. I love that. I want to live, not merely exist.
I also want to push outward. I want to make a positive difference. I want my life to push out, not withdraw inwards. In fact, one of my biggest fears when diagnosed with Usher Syndrome was that I would become nothing, or worse, a negative. I was afraid I wouldn’t produce or create. My friend and mentor Larry Kayser’s from those scary days over thirty years ago have proven true: “Tim, God has created you to be creative. One way or another, creativity will come out of you.”
“What’s the worst that could happen?” is a question that has freed me up to live life to the fullest. That was the question that preceded Larry Kayser’s statement reassuring me my creativity wouldn’t disappear. I had called Larry when I was diagnosed with Usher. I was terrified, my world turned upside down. Larry responded with “Tim, what’s the worst that could happen?” I thought that was the worst thing Larry could have said to me. But when I gave him my worse-case scenarios, he addressed them one by one, taking the debilitating power of the fear away, replacing them with hope and action. So now I am not afraid to confront things head-on, as I’d rather cut them down to size that I can fight rather than leave them as a huge, invisible what-if cloud that leaves me defenseless.
I’m never alone and I’m never without hope. One of the most reassuring tenets is from the bible, Hebrews 13:5. God essentially says “Tim, I will always be your companion and your friend. I won’t desert you nor forsake you.” Very cool. That’s a promise I can hang on to, especially when things get dark or the river high.
Q: On a light note, what is your favorite movie?
Tim: I have a few. I enjoy comedies, romance, and good dramas. I like stories- both in movies and songs. My wife and I love Pride and Prejudice and Return to Me. I am also fond of the Bourne trilogy. I also love Gladiator, Cinderella Man, It’s a Wonderful Life, Elf, The Princess Bride, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Passion of the Christ, Tommy Boy, and Walk the Line.
Q: What is your favorite comic strip?
Tim: Hands down it’s Calvin and Hobbes.
Q: What are a few of your favorite books?
Tim: I am cursed with wanderlust, so I enjoy road stories such as Travels with Charley and Shantaram. I also liked Grapes of Wrath, and For Whom the Bell Tolls. Steinbeck and Hemmingway are two of my favorite writers. I like how much they can pack into a few succinct words. Their observation and articulation of nuances really gives you a feel for their characters. I also like to read what my kids are reading. Reading the Hunger Games trilogy with my daughter Chloe was a lot of fun, too. And there’s always the Bible for a taste of real people living real life; I feel in good company when reading of people who are very good at messing up a good thing! Thank God for his patience and forgiveness. I’d be lost without that and him.
Q: Favorite place for R&R?
Tim: Kim and I love the Outer Banks of the Carolinas. Sitting with Kim in a seaside restaurant overlooking the water, enjoying fresh-catch seafood (blackened, of course) is a perfect evening for me. We also love America’s west coast…the variety of terrain is amazing. I love the “layered” feel of the mountainous landscape, with palm trees reaching for the sky. America is amazingly beautiful. Virginia is a wonderful place to come home to! :)
Q: What does your future look like?
Tim: We all wish we knew, but my crystal ball is broken (not that it ever worked in the first place, though I thought it did). I used to assume my bright future, but I have learned the hard way not to take for granted. Now I’m focusing on today and the next week, and lightly plan for the next year. I am learning that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said not to worry about tomorrow, for today has enough trouble of its own. How many times I’ve wasted the moment at hand because I have focused on the future, whether in worry or excited anticipation.
As far as my vision goes, I am not sure what to expect. My vision has progressively declined, so part of me wonders when things will go black. I am not at all crazy about that, and it can, like anything, I guess, be disconcerting to dwell on the what-ifs. Should that day come, I don’t know how I would handle it. It’s easier to handle something gradually than suddenly, as a surprise.
I don’t really know what direction my life and mindset will go. I have a few ideas- writing, sculpting, pottery on the wheel. There’s always the chance of healing with the steady progress in retinal research. I certainly hope that I do not end up completely deaf and blind, as I don’t like how that would seem to really isolate me from what’s going on. How does one observe then? I have no idea, and besides, there are a plethora of beautiful things for me to see and enjoy and respond to and give today. Tomorrow only seems to rob me of today, and who knows if I’ll even be here tomorrow? I’m here right now. I can think clearly, handle a brush, and love. That’s more than enough todo, and I believe that God will keep his promise in being a faithful friend and companion in this journey. :)
Q: What are you working on presently?
Tim: Ask me anytime in my career up to the last year or two, and my answer would have been the two or three portrait commissions in progress. Now, I still have the portraits, but I am also excited aligning my skills with my heart. I am drawn to helping people gain a comfortable awareness and acceptance of risk and pain- but I want to take it a step further than that. I want to show people the beauty that is found when we willingly dive into those places and love who and what we find there.
Q: Beauty in risk and pain? Please explain.
Tim: In a recent TED Talk I gave in Chicago, I shared how for most of my life I had lived to achieve goals of success with portraiture, namely to be among the best in the nation, the world. I was going to paint the Presidents, the Supreme Court justices, and the like.
But things took a hard turn right on the cusp of success, as I shared earlier. I realize now that I had been running so fast towards success that the present zipped by too fast for me to take it in. Oh, I devoted time to my family, loving my wife and kids, but I don’t think I soaked up what was most important as deeply as I could have. I also didn’t entertain not reaching my goal. Seeing a disabled child married to a wheelchair for life just didn’t fit in my future-is-bright paradigm, so I would avoid going there. Too uncomfortable, too vulnerable, too scary.
But then I became one of them- a person with a disability. And suddenly, I began to learn about empathy. I resonated, identified with being on the outside, on the slow track. It’s taken a while, decades actually, but I see that life is not about what’s on the horizon. It’s about the here and now. I engage with the people that are in my life and that cross my path. And I am finding the deepest, richest beauty I’ve ever tasted in going places that I used to avoid. Places that are opposite success and achievement.
Q: How has this affected your life and agenda, purpose?
Tim: It’s been a steady turnaround, but I am finding opportunities to engage my heart with my brush and pen. I used to be about projecting- in myself and in my portraits- confidence. Now I’m about discovering and affirming dignity, especially in those that are a million miles off the success track.
For example, on my easel is a portrait of a young Yazidi woman who had been raped by ISIS soldiers a dozen times by the time she was fourteen years old. It’s a portrait of Yasmin with Dr. Jan Kizilhan, who, with his team from Germany, rescues women and children who have been abused and left homeless by ISIS/ISIL. I seek to capture the look of compassion and consternation that’s on his face, as Yasmin leans into his protective and kind embrace. I envision this portrait being a part of a national traveling exhibit to help bring attention to the injustice that most of are either unaware or blissfully ignorant of. My goal is to show people that loving the unlovable will enrichen their lives more than all the gleaming silver ever could.
Q: You mentioned you have multiple projects you’re working on. What others?
Tim: I am working on a book to help people see the intricate thought and path of failure and resiliance. Not to feel bad, but to find joy. I know that’s vague, but that’s all I can share for now.
Other projects include co-blogging with my wife Kim on marriage. We’ve been told that people find encouragement from our marriage, and not because it’s easy, but because it’s dynamic in spite of difficulty, opposite personalities, etc.
I also am painting a host of landscapes depicting how I personally see things as an artist with a bad retina. I had told my retinal specialist at Johns Hopkins Wilmar Institute what I was experiencing, and had asked what means existed that could help me see more normally. His response both shocked and surprised me. He said, “Why don’t you just paint it the way you see it? Paint the glare, the diffusion, etc..” So, I’ve taken him up on that and I’m painting the world as I see it.
I have a couple other books in mind that center on who people are and how they cope and survive in spite of setbacks, challenges, disabilities, heartache, etc. People are amazing. I’m inspired by just about everyone’s story, and I want to tell it so others will be inspired.