blind, David Kontra must use thick reading glasses to paint fine
details in his artwork. The Hartville-area artist sells his work
on the eBay online auction site and to collectors of “outsider
David Kontra sits
in front of a window at his home near Hartville and begins to slather
an artist’s canvas with white acrylic paint. With a base coat
applied, he deftly grabs a bottle of blue paint from an array of colors
neatly perched on an old egg carton and transforms the top half of the
painting into a sky.
Watching David paint
you might not notice anything out of the ordinary. Soon, though, little
clues reveal something amiss. He seems to feel his way to the paint
bottles, counting bottle tops with his fingers. His gaze is not directly
focused on the painting. Only when he dons thick reading glasses and
presses his face to the canvas is the remarkable picture of this artist
David is blind —
or nearly so.
At age 9 David was
diagnosed with retinitis
pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that slowly robs affected
people of their sight, usually through an ever-narrowing field of tunnel
a gradual thing,” he says. “Each year it gets progressively
worse and now I’m down to about 5 percent, so I believe.”
A few of
David's paintings are based on songs, including "Stairway
to Heaven," which was inspired by Led Zepplin's rock anthem.
Despite his impaired
eyesight David has launched what he hopes will be a career in art. Surprisingly,
his paintings have attracted the attention of collectors of “outsider
art,” contemporary folk art produced by self-taught artists.
gallery director for the America
Oh Yes! folk art galleries in South Carolina and Washington, D.C.,
has purchased eight of David’s paintings. “I definitely
think he has the potential to be a true outsider artist and eventually
one of the masters of folk art,” she says.
From the time he
first began to lose his sight David, now 46, doodled and drew as a way
to escape. But art never seemed a realistic prospect. Instead David
sought ways to earn a living, in spiteof his disability.
With the help of
the Cleveland Sight Center, a support agency for the visually impaired
in his native Ohio, David learned to repair transmissions and once held
a job in an automotive plant. He later operated a cafeteria in a government
office building. For a time he and longtime companion Kristin Sunday
— who David renamed “Tuesday” — bought and sold
antiques in Virginia.
Two years ago, the
couple’s desire for a rural home led them to south-central Missouri
where they found a house and piece of ground near Hartville.
blind, the Laclede Electric Cooperative member retains enough of his
eyesight to function without the aid of a white cane or guide dog. Holding
hands, David accompanies Tuesday on trips to town. He does chores around
the house and while passing neighbors wave, not realizing David’s
impairment, he can’t see them to wave back.
painting "Lessons" was purchased by the America
Oh Yes! art gallery and is for sale at their Hilton Head, S.C.
gallery and online.
“When I see
someone coming down the street I can’t recognize them. I can see
the color of the shirt or the color of their hair perhaps but I can’t
see the facial features,” David says. “When I get close
enough to see the faces then things come into view. But before that
point things stick out. If the person has a large nose, if the person
is wearing big, goofy glasses, if the woman has red, red lipstick —
that’s what I see in people.
“I put that
into my paintings,” he says.
Indeed, broad shapes
and vague details characterize David’s artwork. At first glance
his work seems amateuristic. But it is the raw nature of the genre that
appeals to collectors of outsider art.
By definition, outsider
artists lack formal training. Often they are at least as far removed
from the mainstream of society as their work. Notable outsider artists
have come from mental institutions or prisons. Others begin painting
following some tragedy or life-altering event.
David admits that
his art, too, is influenced by his own experience.
my past, perhaps I do paint a lot of dark feelings and emotions —
anger and disappointment and things of that nature,” he says,
recalling life experiences that influence his work. “The disability,
the pain that you feel from loss of parents or maybe not finding employment,
maybe not being able to go to college. Not being able to be a part of
the gang at school. Being shunned away or ostracized just because you
strong light helps David see to work in his home near Hartville.
a big part.”
David entered the
world of outsider art almost by accident. While selling antiques David
and Tuesday became regular visitors to the eBay.com online auction service.
Tuesday happened upon art for sale on the site and was not impressed
by what she saw.
told David his art had personality,” Tuesday says. “When
I saw the art on eBay I said, ‘Your art is better than a lot of
this stuff I see.’”
The couple listed
a few of David’s drawings on the site and, to their surprise,
the works sold. Although his paintings bring only $25 to $50 each on
eBay, the sales have given David hope. Finally, he sees something he
might be successful doing.
believe how many times in my life I’ve been told ‘You can’t
do that,’” David says. “It gets pretty old. You’re
frustrated. You’re like, what can I do?
is the answer,” David recalls thinking when his art first sold.
“Maybe this is something for a new career.”
Kay Garth, an art
collector from Pensacola, Fla., agrees. Garth is launching an Internet
folk art gallery, SouthernVisionaryArt.com, and expects David’s
work to be displayed prominently.
“We have chosen
David as one of our emerging artists,” she says. “There
are so many artists out there doing this and I’ve only discovered
about three in the last four years that I thought were really good and
David is one of them.”
While she admits
part of the allure of David’s art is the compelling tale of a
legally blind artist, Garth is quick to insist that David’s paintings
stand on their own merit.
just good,” she says “He has just got a wonderful look.
I have him in my home right now. People come in and they love him.”
Those are encouraging
words to David, who says he hopes people buy his art because they like
displays a recent painting titled "Port." This painting
sold for $24 on the eBay auction site.
want to be known as an artist because people are pitying me,”
he says. “I’d rather they not buy my art at all then.”
Still, even David
recognizes that his disability, while shaping his vision and art, also
makes his work more attractive to buyers. Each of his eBay listings
contain this telling invitation:
“Enter a world
through another’s eyes. A world not of distinct images, but of
shadowy inhabitants. . . hints of colors, shapes and textures . . .
A world captured by an artist who paints what he sees, but barely sees
what he paints.”
For more information write David Kontra, 5294 Curtner Rd., Norwood,
MO 65717 or e-mail the artist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
David’s paintings are displayed on www.americaohyes.com
and often for sale at www.ebay.com
(search for David Kontra).