What is so particular about this portrait?
Clinton? No. It’s the artist who painted it.
I didn’t start out to be an artist.
I just wanted to learn about the world around me that I was living in.
I think I’m starting to know it, but I can’t be sure without feeling it.
Esref Armagan was born without eyes. As a child he grew a passion for drawing objects he was familiar with through touch. “Growing up, he felt socially isolated because of his blindness and would often spend hours alone drawing in the sand and exploring the relief patterns of his figures.”
He learned to associate colors with objects – by far the only thing he learned from his sighted others. Practically everything else in the art he uses, he has discovered on his own.
He would first etch “the image in his mind” on a cardboard. Then picking from systematically arranged oil paints (always placed in the same order for identification), he would apply a color with his fingers. Letting one color dry up in a few days, he will have to be patient before he could apply the next color.
Today he sketches using a stylus that makes raised outlines. He has also come to apply acrylics as they dry more quickly.
The object must be made into a raised drawing.
I must work for days in order to perceive it in my mind.
I use a putty outline which enables my hands to easily distinguish the lines of the drawing. I do not use a brush. It’s impossible for me to understand whether there’s paint on the brush.
I have to paint with my hands.
The most amazing fact about Esref’s paintings is not that he imagines touched objects’ forms fairly well and represents them accurately on paper. His paintings are at par with any drawn by skilled sighted artists. As specialists studying him have said, his paintings show the right mixture of real world characteristics such as color variation, shadows, light and shade effects, light reflection, contrasts and perspective.
If we focus on a single of these characteristics, we might apprehend the miracle better. Perspective refers to the property of 2D pictures which accurately reflect 3D patterns in space. The modern use of perspective in drawings was considerably advanced by the observation made by Filippo Brunelleschi, who was standing one day before the famous octagonal structure Florence Baptistery in Italy. He noticed that the upper and lower horizontal lines of the walls of the Baptistery (if extended imaginally) converged at the horizon. Using his observation he drew an accurate mirror reflection of the Baptistery. A test of his accuracy was to place his painting beside a mirror facing the Baptistery. Viewers could see that both the representations (mirror and the painting) were indistinguishable.
Dr. John M. Kennedy, a perception psychologist at the University of Toronto, wished to test Armagan’s ability to drawn in perspective using this historical place as a venue. Armagan was not aware of his commission, except that he had to reach a certain place in Italy. Upon reaching, he was guided through a tactile exposure to the Baptistery’s design, seated at the same position as presumably Brunelleschi had adopted, and given the challenge to draw the Baptistery in perspective. Amazingly, Armagan was able to do so; on the other hand, even sighted people often have difficulty in using this artistic technique.
Moreover, his pictures show accurate representations of objects he could never have touched with his hands, such as sun and clouds…. His method of doing portraits highlight this aspect of the living miracle. He would ask a sighted person to draw around a photograph. Turning the page over, he would feel around the sketch with his left hand. And then transfer his feeling onto the paper. One might say that the raised outlines helped him out, but to get the whole face so aptly is certainly out of the ordinary.
Dr. Aamir Amedi is a an Instructor of Neurology at the Harvard Medical School. He and his colleges invited Esref as a single-subject in a brain-scanning study. Esref provides a unique opportunity to explore the brain of a person whose artistic prowess allows him to communicate his internal perceptional experiences in an external form. Scanning Esref’s brain while he was engaged in exploring forms of objects through touch and in drawing a novel object he had never come across before, the following amazing discovery was made:
Activation during drawing (compared to scribbling) occurred in brain areas normally associated with vision, including the striate cortex along with frontal and parietal cortical regions. Some of these areas showed overlap when EA was asked to mentally imagine the pictures he had to draw (albeit to a lesser anatomical extent and signal magnitude).
Interestingly, several areas, most notably in the medial posterior occipital cortex, showed much greater selectivity for drawing compared to all other tested conditions.
Within the occipital cortex, activation specific to the drawing condition was found in occipito-temporal areas …. corresponding to the primary and secondary visual cortical areas (areas corresponding to mid and peripheral visual field representations).
The same brain areas were active in Esref’s mind that are also active in the sighted people’s brain engaged in the same task! It means the brain process taking place inside Esref’s mind was the same on touching objects, as in people when they SEE those same objects.
This finding challenges the preconceived notion that vision (or precisely: the information from environment in form of light-rays) is needed for the ability to see. Here is a man who can imagine things as well as sighted people can, as both his art and the scientific investigation made upon him illustrate! The following explanation by Dr. Kennedy helps us further:
Any differences in definitions of shape and distance are matters more of convenience and habit than of geometrical principle. When the core common to shape and distance is evident, it is easier to understand how touch can achieve distal perception.
The senses input information from the environment, the perception apparatus, which includes the whole body in it’s scope, produces an internal model of the environment, that the hands use to paint. Remove eyes from the loop and it continues with what is available.
Another explanation (related to the one above) lies in the plasticity of our brains, an idea that has gained acceptance only in the recent decades. The brain can utilize all it’s untapped potential to construct reality so that maximum survival is possible.
Feeling my way around with my fingers has completely erased my blindness. It’s as if I see like anyone else.
Most amazing of all, in the whole story, is the realization that somehow Esref visualizes (‘imagines’ is a more accurate word) the outer world as it is by focusing on the shapes, sizes, and distances, and on the patterns formed by these elements just like we do. The only difference is that we rely primarily on vision and he relies solely on touch and actual moving about. Fact is that we too have learned a lot of the information (that creates the perception of the world we are familiar with) through the sources Esref uses but we don’t realize that too often, we are so used to seeing.
One would like to get inside Esref’s mental world and SEE the pictures it shows. Esref himself comments in the documentary made upon him: nobody can say I can not see.
Esref’s experience reminds us of the concepts of ‘tangled hierarchies’ and ‘strange loops’ Hofstadter developed. Whatever we see, hear or feel is the outcome (a percept) of the underlying system which combines information from diverse sources. Information is nothing but a pattern contained in a series of symbols. The phenomenon of perception is just like the reading off of the larger pattern made up of small and interconnected loops of information. Our mental world (whether eyes closed or open) is just like reading the meaning contained in the loops, slashes and dots that we call ‘writing’ in combination. Or, it is like getting immersed in the Computer Screen’s display which is nothing but a pattern of pixels. We are not looking at the pattern of pixels though. Our minds are locked onto the patterns of meaning those pixel-patterns represent.
Art, on both a technical and conceptual level, externalizes the inner workings of the brain (Zeki, 2001).
Esref’s story once again makes us realize that this world is nothing but a product of our minds. Surely our minds are subject to certain governing rules that have been programmed into it. Just that. Change the rules and the perception and the world changes. I will here point out my reader to the case of outrageous sensations resulting from a dose of LSD. LSD is not the only relevant example. Think about the profound changes in the percept, given mescalin, meditation, optical illusions, or neurotransmitter disturbances in schizophrenia. Lesson: all our perceptions are limited by the defining features of the environment we are in. We cannot really go beyond the restrictions imposed on us by the environment and perceive more or differently than we currently can.
وَما هٰذِهِ الحَيوٰةُ الدُّنيا إِلّا لَهوٌ وَلَعِبٌ ۚ وَإِنَّ الدّارَ الءاخِرَةَ لَهِىَ الحَيَوانُ ۚ لَو كانوا يَعلَمونَ
for, the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play –whereas, behold, the life in the hereafter is indeed the only [true] life: if they but knew this! [Al-Ankabut, 64]
We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world.
Esref’s story also reminds us of that essential limitation of science. It is a tool for testing the certitude of pieces of theory, but the theory and the tools are heavily limited by the limitations in our own perceptions that the lesson one points out to. Since it is not possible for the observer to move outside the FIELD in which the observation must take place, all observations are limited by the definition of the field. All the progress in knowledge made through science is therefore abrupt, jerky, and subject to nullification or heavy modification given a contradictory or unique discovery not made before. Esref’s story merely illustrates the heavy limitations on perception given biological constraints and allowances. But the modern-day scientist’s story illustrates the psychological (or let us say, the spiritual) constraints on perception…
فَإِنَّها لا تَعمَى الأَبصٰرُ وَلٰكِن تَعمَى القُلوبُ الَّتى فِى الصُّدورِ
For surely it is not the eyes that are blind, but blind are the hearts which are in the breasts. [Al-Hajj, 46]
The thing I fear most in life is being asked to do something I’m incapable of doing.
- Paintings by Esref Armagan can be viewed on the websites armagan.com and esrefarmagan.com
- Esref’s full statements highlighted in blue have been taken from the Volvo S60 Blind Preview documentary.
- Kennedy’s perspective challenge to Armagan has been video-recorded in a documentary on Armagan available on YouTube.
- Reference to Amedi et al.’s article from which the quotes have been taken: Neural and behavioral correlates of drawing in an early blind painter: A case study. Brain Research, 1242, 252-62. (2008). Retrieve Online.
- Dr. Kennedy’s quote taken from: Kennedy, J. M. (1993). Drawing and the blind. Yale University Press, p. 9. Retrieved Online.
- To read my rendering of related concepts that Hofstadter developed in his classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, click here.
- Zeki’s quote in Amedi et al (2008) cited above.
- Quote in lesson #2 by Robert Pirsig in his famous Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.