Living with vision loss, Ember Looten paints a vivid picture of life as she sees it.
Ember Looten is a painter whose bold expressions of light and color immediately captivate the viewer. Though she’s lived with vision loss her whole life, she has always been compelled to create visual art. In an interview with Cuppa Wow, she shared the story of her lifelong artistic journey.
When did you start making art and how did you develop your skills to this point?
I have been creating art as long as I can remember. I was drawing before I could speak. Like most children, I found great pleasure in scribbling with crayons. At age five or six, I drew a picture of a person throwing a ball for a dog in the park. My parents thought I was talented and strongly encouraged me to continue drawing. My grandmother thought it was a “God-given talent,” considering my sight, and I think my mother longed for those moments when I was quiet, as I talked constantly as a child.
My passion was recognized in elementary and high school, although all my teachers had the same complaint: that I “took too long to finish projects.” I started entering in local (Missouri) shows once in high school and surprisingly took first through third place in many of them. I drew almost every day as a teenager. Even on family vacations, my mother would laugh when waking to drawings of Coke bottles, chip packages, cars, and anything else I could find around a hotel room. I wanted to capture everything I saw around me.
Luckily, after I got an associate’s in both graphic design and printmaking technology, my counselor for Rehab Services for the Blind fought for me to continue my studies and get a scholarship toward a BFA in drawing and painting with an emphasis in printmaking. It was at college that I honed my technical skills.
However, after graduating, I scrapped many of the “rules” that they taught me. I made my highlights white (as my eyes see them) and went back to working in acrylic paint. When I’m into an art piece, all I want to do is create and I am often too impatient for oils to dry. I’m still developing my own style to this day and imagine this will continue for as long as I’m making art.
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It’s so encouraging to think about: we’re all continually growing in our crafts. How do you feel when you’re making art?
When I make art, I feel at peace. I feel like it’s my greatest passion and what I’m meant to do. I paint from feeling and can sometimes get a different range of emotions depending on the piece. However, the constant and overall feeling between them all is completely satisfied with being in that moment.
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What a great feeling, and art is clearly what you are meant to do! You decided to go public with your vision loss. What was the result of sharing that part of your story? Do you have any regrets about it?
Going public with my eyesight or lack thereof was something I constantly debated over the years. As a young child, Social Services strongly encouraged my parents to send me to a school for the blind. I had a tutor of sorts who came to my house when I was young to teach me Braille and how to use an echolocation cane. My parents, however, decided to send me to a regular public school and thought I could manage with plenty of tough love and much learned independence. The Braille was switched for very heavy, large-print books…like wouldn’t-even-fit-in-a-backpack big, and they taught me to use my hearing and touch to become more aware of my surroundings. My sight was only made known to my college professors on a need-to-know basis…if I was having trouble seeing the board or figure study and the seats weren’t automatically pushed close enough. I can usually pass for a fully (yet horribly awkward) sighted person, until you spend enough one-on-one time with me—then the ways I adapt to the visual world seem to become clear. I often look down in front of me when walking. (I have tunnel vision, lack depth perception, and have little peripheral vision, causing me to see out of only my left eye those things that are directly in front of me.) I hold books and menus entirely way too close to my face. I can’t see someone tapping my shoulder without turning. I can’t read large overhead menus at fast-food places. I run into light posts, fire hydrants, etc., too often.
I also have this odd phenomenon (it’s actually psychological and is just a human condition heightened by my sight) that if my brain doesn’t register what it’s seeing, it will just make something up: a fire hydrant becomes a child about to run into the road, a park bench turns into a very large dog, a line of trees becomes a crowd of people.
I have made social media aware of most of this in one post or another. It’s not that I’m ashamed of my differently-abledness, just that I never wanted to be known as a “legally blind artist” I wanted my art to stand on its own. I cringe when I read comments that express, “I thought your art was good until I found out about your sight, and now I think it’s great!” While I know good intentions are meant and this is still a compliment, I’d prefer my paintings to be seen as such without all the information of my sight. However, I have come to terms with the fact that being an artist is showing the world your own unique point of view. The entire reason my paintings look the way they do is because I paint how I see. My heightened blurs of color with a stark contrast between dark and light.
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Your art is striking! Outside of visual art, what are some of your everyday inspirations?
Some of my everyday inspirations are poetry and music. The visual imagery poetry creates has inspired many pieces. Music I believe is a universal language. It can break cultural boundaries and bring people together like nothing else. It inspires not only ideas for painting but can also help me create them. When I’m painting a portrait, I’ll often turn on the subject’s favorite musician to better understand that person. I’ll turn on music that sets a mood for a painting, or when pushing a deadline, I’ll play more upbeat-tempo music to help me paint faster.
You can keep up with Ember’s beautiful work and even order a custom portrait from her on Instagram!