“No one can call me blind. I can see more with my fingers than most sighted people do with their eyes” This is what Esref Armagan says about himself, and rightly so.
Born in 1953, Esref of Ankara, Turkey, is an important personality in the history of picture making. He is an artist of repute, who has never been able to see. He has never seen the magic of light at sunset, or the beauty of a flowering meadow in the spring. Yet he paints all of it. Esref’s three dimensional drawings and paintings also include boats, houses, birds, and butterflies. The most obvious thought here would be: how does he do it if he can’t see?
It was like rubbing salt over the wounds; Esref was not only born without eyes, but he was also born to a poverty stricken family in a poor neighbourhood of Istanbul. Surely, he did not receive any formal schooling or training. An isolated blind boy, who spent his childhood scratching and scribbling in the dirt, Esref has come a long way.
Over the years, Esref developed his own method of creating his artwork. First, he uses his fingers to feel the shape and measures distances with his hands to make a detailed picture in his mind of what he wants to draw. In the next step, he uses a Braille stylus for etching an outline of the drawing. With his fingers, Esref then starts to apply paint using different colours. He has also understood about shadows by listening to the casual remarks made by the observers of his paintings.
Esref has also developed his own method of doing portraits. He asks a sighted person to draw around a photograph, then he turns the paper over and feeling with his left hand Esref transfers what he feels onto another sheet, later adding colour. He has the privilege of making the portraits of the first lady of Turkey and also that of Bill Clinton, the former US president. Esref has refined this talent to an exceptional level. He works in absolute silence and gets totally immersed in his work. In fact, when he is drawing the picture of the sea, he often wonders if he should wear a life jacket so as not to drown!
Esref’s work is so remarkable and unique that he became a subject of study for scientists. They got curious to know the functioning of Esref’s brain—the brain that has never detected hues, light or shadows and still has the ability to create visual art forms, which are so realistic.
Dr. John M Kennedy, Professor Perception/Cognition Psychology, University of Toronto at Scarborough, who has conducted a series of tests on Esref said “Esref has demonstrated for the first time that a blind person can develop on his or her pictorial skills, which is almost equal to most depictions by the sighted people.” Also testing the functioning of his brain while drawing, it was revealed that as Esref drew, the visual cortex (the part of the brain that makes sense of the information coming from the eyes) of his brain was not lying dormant. In fact, it had been lit up as though Esref was seeing. It was further observed that the brain has the potential to adapt and rewire itself according to individual needs. This phenomenon of the brain’s ability to reorganize its function based on new information and experience is defined as neural plasticity.
Esref’s work has been displayed in more than 20 exhibitions around the world. He has appeared several times on T.V. shows, and has also been extensively covered by the media in Turkey.
Esref’s amazingly realistic work and his ability to perceive has revolutionized our knowledge of how much congenitally blind people can understand about the layout of space.
Esref is a happily married man with two children. He lives a fulfilling life and wants to be remembered as an artist; an artist who proves to all that you don’t need eyes to see. Esref’s artwork has certainly changed everything that science had assumed about vision.