Phoebe Walker caught up with Kimberley Burrows, the artist behind the beautiful covers for the Disability Awareness Month-themed issue of In the Middle. They discussed Kimberley’s life as a blind artist, her creative process and producing work in the time of lockdown.
TW: mention of suicide etc.
You are currently studying at Leeds Arts University- what made you decide that Leeds and the University were right for you?
Before going back into higher education, I was a regular volunteer at a sight loss charity called Henshaws Society for Blind People, in my home city of Greater Manchester. I helped to teach Braille, collected money at a variety of events, gave speeches sharing my story of sight loss at charity dinners, and volunteered in the office one day a week to help with their social media accounts and networking. As I’d just made Christmas cards for Henshaws and they had been delivered to the office, one of the ladies mentioned how she went to art college in Leeds and it started to turn the cogs in my head. I didn’t get to enjoy a college experience when I was younger because my sight was deteriorating after high school and I was becoming more socially anxious. After feeling so empowered by Henshaws and the skills I’d learned, I looked into Leeds College of Art (as it was called at the time) and found they had a course for mature students wanting to get back into education and get the qualifications they needed to start a Bachelor’s Degree. This was perfect! I was 26 at this time. I booked the open day and the train journey and straight away I fell in love with everythingn that the man who would become my tutor was describing. He especially wanted to get the best from me as his daughter was blind, too. I fell in love with Leeds and how friendly everyone is to my Guide Dog and I. When I completed the course and it was time to select my university, I knew I wanted to carry on at Leeds Arts University on the Illustration course. It was a city I was starting to call home.
That’s really lovely and I’m glad you have a place to call home.
Thank you so much! I love that Leeds is still very much the North and has all of its charms, just on a much smaller scale to Manchester. This makes it much easier for my Guide Dog and I to navigate and to remember all of our routes. Everything is pretty much within walking distance here and we rarely use public transport.
You mentioned that you started to lose your vision in high school- what was that experience like for you?
I was born as a premature baby with my condition (congenital cataracts) overlooked until I was 4 years old, and I was having a lot of accidents. A great part of my childhood was spent travelling from Manchester to London’s Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital, where I’d have many appointments and operations to have cataract removal surgery on both eyes, before having interocular lenses. School was difficult for me right from the beginning, especially in the early ’90s when there wasn’t a lot of understanding of visual impairment or a lot of help available. Nowadays, there are specialist assistants for the classroom and low vision aids that children can use. I didn’t have that. I could never see the whiteboard or the blackboard as everything was so blurry, and friends were given permission to read aloud what was written so I could write it down. I could never see regular print in textbooks so had to have it scanned and enlarged. I could never see the ball to play sports and had to struggle and do my best. It really embedded this feeling of being different and being ‘other’ from a young age. After high school is when more of my sight deteriorated and I cut myself off from the world for a few years while I tried to process it.
Do you feel that your blindness has affected your time as a student and as an artist?
Absolutely. Being older than everyone else has had an effect too. Even though everyone is lovely, there has still always been that looming sense of being different clouding me. I’m the one who stands out at my university with a Guide Dog. I can’t really go into any corridor or workshop without a chorus of “aww!” at every turn and it makes me incredibly self-conscious and not want to show up. No one really sits with me and it eats away at me inside. I promise I’m nice! But I get it. Young people stick with their housemates and flatmates and I shouldn’t take it too personally. The only time this was never a problem was during the college course I mentioned for mature students. It was an Access to HE (Level 3) course and had
people from all walks of life. It was the best time I’ve ever had in an educational setting. I absolutely loved being there and I felt so included and so valued. We had everyone from a doctor to a 60 year old computer tech to a seamstress who were all interested in art and wanted to take that first step to getting their art degree. It was so empowering for me. University has unfortunately been a different experience to that, but I will always value the Access to HE course.
I noticed that you do a lot of work involving charities and fundraising- did your experiences growing up shape that interest?
Absolutely. Going to Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital was probably my first connection to charity and fundraising. At the entrance, there is a memorial plaque for Princess Diana to show that she did a lot of work with the hospital and my mum would always point it out to me as we entered. It gave me hope knowing that she was there. I used to collect magazines and newspaper clippings with her in and saw all of the charity work she was doing. The same with Michael Jackson. They were both giving back to people less fortunate and I really admired that. I’ve always wanted to help others as I know how difficult it is to live with blindness. Anything, even just giving someone your time, is so valuable.
Last issue, you created such a beautiful piece for the In The Middle Section. I was curious about the process behind producing a new piece?
It’s my pleasure! Thank you for having my work as the cover, I wasn’t expecting that. My approach to making work is very open and I don’t give myself any constraints because my biggest constraint is my blindness and my mental health. The fact that I am making something, anything, is the most important thing as not even a few months ago I wasn’t making anything, and I was my own biggest barrier. It doesn’t matter about the materials; I use what I feel like using that day. If I’m in the mood to throw some watercolours around, I’ll randomly choose a few blocks out of my palette. It’s the same with my oil pastels. I’m not picky about what the
colours are as I have no colour perception. I always listen to music and translate my feelings and experiences into the piece through movement. If I’m having a particularly tough day, I’ll be aggressive with my mark making and hope that it comes through to the sighted audience. At the end, I feel fulfilled that I’ve worked through some of the thoughts in my mind. I then scan it in and post it to Instagram and move onto the next piece. It’s very much a therapy session for me.
I’m glad you enjoyed making it as much as we enjoyed looking at it. I have noticed that on Instagram you often put lyrics or song titles as the captions to pieces of art – is music is an important factor in the creation of your art?
Music is an important factor in the making, and it’s an important part of my life in general. I’m always listening to music, but especially so when I’m making my paintings. I play albums and songs that are an extension of how I’m feeling. My emotions made into sound. I will then choose the lyrics that either describe my mood or thought processes at that time or that are from the song that helped inspire the piece I made. Music, lyrics and the range of
emotions get me thinking of movements and gestures and I want to marry all of these things together.
You also said that colours and materials are not a driving force in deciding how your art is going to look- how do you decide what colours and materials are right for the feelings you are trying to evoke?
That’s a very good question! Some of this is prior knowledge I had before my retinas detached in 2018 and I went blind. I know that ink will look a certain way to sighted people because I saw it myself once. I know that watercolours look a certain way. If I’m feeling very, very down, I go straight for ink or my charcoal sticks. The output of both is going to be layers of black that have connotations of being in a dark place. Combined with mark making gestures, I can hopefully convey how I’m feeling. If I’m feeling like I’m having a better day or the song I’m listening to is rich and layered, I’ll go for oil pastels where the outcome will be creamy and textural. Sometimes I do want specific colours to be used, and I can’t select them myself, so I use the ‘Be My Eyes’ app on my phone that connects me to a sighted volunteer
who can see through my phone camera to my materials or I’ll ring a friend if they’re available to video chat and we can go through what I’m doing.
What made you want to pursue art and illustrations particularly?
When I was having all of my operations and recovering at Great Ormond Street, I’d always ask for the art materials rather than the toys. I didn’t really realise why but I think, in hindsight, I needed an escape and I needed to work through a lot of complex things that were happening to me. I was away from home, school, friends and family and I didn’t understand why I had to wake up with bandages on my eyes and needles in my eyes. I didn’t know what cataracts or lenses were and I didn’t know that what I could see wasn’t what everyone else could see. That continued all throughout school. I didn’t need textbooks for art. No struggling with whiteboards. This was something I could do on my own and I did very well. I took Art as
my GCSE and received an A*. After I lost some sight after high school, my confidence in drawing dwindled until I became interested in Paddington Bear. He brought me comfort and I started to collect merchandise and illustrate him. I shared some of my drawings with the Paddington Bear Facebook page that had just been set up at the time, and the page emailed
me to say it was run by none other than the author’s daughter. She gave me her father’s address and I started to write to him. I also attached my drawings so that he could display them in his office. I received a signed photograph and we wrote to each other for some time. He really encouraged me to keep pursuing what I enjoy doing despite what makes it hard. He even invited me to his home in London and I got to sit in his garden with him and his guinea pigs. I’ll never forget his support and encouragement and it is because of him that I entered the RNIB’s Young Illustrator of the Year competition in 2014, and illustrated for their
Insight Magazine for the year, before going ahead and going to art college and university. When my retinas detached in 2018 and I became blind, I found it very difficult to event carry on with my degree. I couldn’t see to do anything and was really struggling. What could I even do? I couldn’t make the work I was making anymore, and I had my heart set on being a
children’s book illustrator. I had a big mental breakdown and couldn’t create for a long, long time because I’d become too scared to do so.
What helped to overcome that barrier of feeling unable to create anything?
It was the worst time of my life and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I felt so entirely alone throughout it too as I was away from my family who were going through their own things. My dad had cancer that he was having treatment for and my mum had had a stroke earlier in the year. My Guide Dog saved me through it all. Unfortunately, I had to reach a very bad point in order to start creating. On August 29th I was going to take my life. I knew what I was going to do and had typed up a goodbye letter in my notes app to send to my mum on Messenger and my best friend on Discord. I had had enough of struggling and suffering. I hate what happened to me with my retinas detaching and all of the pain and PTSD I went through from the surgeries and recovery process. I missed being able to see, even just a little bit. I’d been without my Guide Dog for a week at this point while she went up to Otley to start a very long process of having her benign tumours removed from her hips and rib cage (I’m still waiting for her to come home now and I’m at day 94 without her). I couldn’t stop crying for hours and
my eyes were absolutely killing me. That one small part of me that wanted to survive dared myself to paint for one last time if this was truly my last night. If I felt nothing, no connection to it whatsoever, then I could proceed to end it. I didn’t feel anything at first. I actually felt really self-conscious as a blind person just sitting there with paints at 3am, but slowly I started to calm down and enter a meditative state. I just listened to the music and expressed how I felt through gestures. Things changed for me that night and I set up my Instagram with my very honest first post (that’s still there) that details what happened. I’ve been creating every day since.
What does your art mean to you?
For me, my art is very personal and autobiographical. As I’m making every day, while I experience life’s highs and lows, it’s become like a diary and most definitely a therapy tool while I continue to work through my complex feelings and emotions connected to blindness, suicidal thoughts, severe depression, abandonment, pain, isolation, PTSD and living with an eating disorder. More than anything it has become a symbol of my strength and determination to overcome all of my obstacles. I am still here, still fighting and still creating despite everything life has thrown at me and will continue to do so for as long as I can as I am experiencing genuine enjoyment for the first time in a long time. Sharing it along has helped me to connect with a lot of people and hopefully sharing my story and my art will inspire
I have to say I have really enjoyed following you and seeing the art you create- it is really beautiful.
That means a lot to me, thank you very much!
Has lockdown has helped or hindered your artistic approach?
Lockdown has actually helped my artistic approach and the final year of my degree. With everything going online, and being efficient at using accessible software for my phone and computer, I haven’t struggled with university content. Knowing that many of my peers are in the same boat and having to problem solve with many of the facilities being unavailable, has helped me to continue to embrace my completely analogue approach to making and not make me feel anxious that I’m missing out on workshops or skills that my sighted peers are using. The only thing I’m missing is my independence but a lot of that comes from my Guide Dog, Tami, not being here and recovering from tumour removal surgery.
What’s in the works for you in the future?
In the near future I’ll have my website online and a shop available. I’ve had a lot of interest in prints, original canvases and other little handmade gifts I can offer with my patterns on them. I just need to finish my dissertation first and then get some sighted help with the technical side of things! I’ll keep making and sharing every day and would love to exhibit outside of
my final degree show.
I’ve asked what your art means to you, but I was just wondering what you hope your art brings to other people?
I hope it is a source of encouragement and inspiration for other people. I hope it brings hope. We’re all on different paths and fighting different battles, so you may never understand blindness, but I would never want anyone to feel the way I did on August 29th. When things are at their worst and we are at our lowest points, we absolutely have the power to turn things around even if we feel like we don’t, and when we feel like we’re drowning. Power lies within us. No matter our abilities, we can all overcome our obstacles and achieve our dreams.
All featured images via the artist. You can follow and discover more of Kimberley’s art here.