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Kontra vision
Legally blind artist "paints what he sees, but barely sees what he paints"

by Bob McEowen

Legally 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 art.”

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 complete.

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 vision.

“It’s 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.

Laura Carpenter, 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.

Although legally 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.

David's 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.

“Because of 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 were different.

A strong light helps David see to work in his home near Hartville.

“Emotion plays 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.

“I always 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.

“You wouldn’t 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?

“Maybe this 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.

“He’s 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 the paintings.

David displays a recent painting titled "Port." This painting sold for $24 on the eBay auction site.

“I don’t 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 pemberley@getgoin.net. David’s paintings are displayed on www.americaohyes.com and often for sale at www.ebay.com (search for David Kontra).

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