“I am an artist first,” Tammy Ruggles declares. “I am also a legally blind artist.” The soft patter of her accent belies a steely determination she developed growing up in the rural South.
Tollesboro, Kentucky is a small, rural community that sits in the northeastern part of the state, just below the Ohio River. There’s one, or maybe two gas stations, and a couple of stores, but that’s about the extent of the development in a town of only about 2,000 people.
Tammy spent her childhood playing in the fields and woods on her family’s farm. She happened to wear glasses — always had — but she didn’t give it much thought. After all, she never knew a different life. Her family didn’t make much of it, either, wanting her to have a carefree and robust childhood. Besides, there were other, more exciting things to think about — and there were exciting things to do.
For as long as she can remember, Tammy has been an artist — and a versatile one at that. She started writing stories as a child, sharing them with her classmates. Passionate about fine art, she took as many art and art history courses as she could in high school and college. It wasn’t until her eyesight forced her into an early retirement from her career as a social worker that Tammy returned to art once again.
“I don’t want to be known as a legally blind artist,” she reiterates. “I want to be known as an artist.” But she also knows that sharing her story is potentially important for other people. “I want other people to know they can do this, too. I want to help other people in the process.” This has been something of a calling after she had to give up the career she loved, a career aimed solely at helping other people.
Just as passionate about social work as she was about art, Tammy had completed her B.A. in Social Work and M.A. in Adult Education and Counseling at Morehouse State University. She then went on to work for 10 years in child protection, foster care, and elderly care. Every day her focus was on improving the lives of society’s most vulnerable members. As her eyesight continued to diminish, she used magnifying classes, large computer monitors, and increasingly large fonts to see the documents that went along with her daily work.
It all came to an end in her late 30’s. During a routine driver’s license renewal she failed the vision test. Her license was not renewed. After seeing her specialist, she was shocked to learn that her vision had declined so significantly. She had never driven at night, since she suffered from night blindness, but to be told that she could no longer drive at all was a terrible blow.
Around this time, she also finally learned the name of her condition: Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), an inherited degenerative disease that eventually destroys the patient’s eyesight. Her family had never told her about her condition, and when she became an adult, she never investigated the cause of her poor vision. She’d just always accepted that her eyesight meant eyeglasses and magnifying glasses and getting up close to whatever she wanted to see. She just never associated the facts of her life with a disease.
She sat in stunned silence as her doctor described RP in terms of shingles shedding from a roof. Eventually, she’d have very few left. The social services agency for which she worked told her that, since driving was a requirement of her job in a rural community and the agency already had a small staff that couldn’t accommodate her condition, she’d have to retire. “I don’t blame them,” she says. “I blame RP. I loved that job.”
Devastated, Tammy did not know what to do. Her life’s work was over, but her passion remained. How would she channel it into something just as fulfilling? How would she adapt? How would she even get to the store without relying on other people for help — the one who’d spent a career helping others?
She felt like a failure. For a long time, Tammy was in limbo. Then in 2009, her son gave her a large screen television, which she hooked up to her computer. Eureka! She could see well enough to take up sketching again, this time with Sharpie pens. For years she’d done finely detailed sketches from photographs, until she could no longer see well enough to know what she was looking at. Colors blurred into an indistinguishable mass. With images magnified on the television monitor, she was once again able to produce art. It had been 10 years since she’d last sketched.
Soon thereafter, however, retinal degeneration took away sketching. Once again, Tammy didn’t know what to do. Then in 2013, an online friend suggested she take up finger painting. She thought, “I can’t do that. I’ve never painted.” But, ever adaptable and courageous, she gave it a try. Once again, Tammy was connected with art.
Finger painting was more appealing than using a paint brush because it allowed her to literally feel the drawing take shape. When she sketched, she had to use her eyesight, typically working from a photograph. No longer able to rely on her vision, she turned to the tactile experience of finger painting. A brush allows the artist to see what’s on the canvas, and one uses one’s eyesight to make precision strokes. With the finger, that element is taken out of the equation, allowing the artist to form mental images through feeling the motion of the finger on the paper.
Ever the versatile artist, Tammy also returned to writing. Her experiences with the gritty and heartbreaking lives of the children she met through her social work formed the basis of Young Adult stories. It had just come to her one day: Maybe she can write about things she knows, like parenting, social work, family issues, and social problems. Over time, she published stories that she knew young readers needed to know about, or that reflected their own traumas — everything from bullying to rape.
After a while, Tammy decided it was time to try something new. She had moved away from finger painting and writing, and began toying with an idea she’d coveted for years, but couldn’t fathom pursuing: fine art photography. She’d always wanted to do photography, but her night blindness prevented her from working in a dark room. In college, consequently, studying photography was out of the question. On top of that, she couldn’t see the settings on a camera, and felt like the field of fine art photography was out of her reach.
As technology began to change how photography could be done, however, Tammy’s son encouraged her to use a point-and-click camera. She’d ordered one, but had left it on the kitchen counter in the box it came in. “This is corny,” she thought. “A legally blind photographer? I can’t even read the instructions!” But then one day her son said, “There’s a pretty sunset out there. Why don’t you get that camera out?” So she did.
Her camera, a Sony RX100 digital, is nothing that fancy, but it has a notched turn that tells her by feel what setting the camera is on. She puts it on auto and shoots what appears to be a potentially interesting subject. When she gets back to her house, she upload the photos to her computer, and displays them on a large screen. From there, she can choose the images she likes best, learn about them, and edit for a final picture.
“I like a simple picture,” she says. Part of that simplicity includes working in black and white, which she finds because of the RP. She prefers black and white because the contrast — the sharp delineation of light and dark — is easier to see. Colors tend to blur together, so that shapes are harder to make out. “Sometimes I don’t know what is out there to take a picture of until I move close to it.” She might see a red spot and not know what it is, and so move in to get a closer look. “A lot of times the camera is doing the work. I couldn’t do it without the camera and my screen.”
She also likes the aesthetics of a simple composition. Indeed, her photography, even of subjects close up, is clean and expansive. Through Tammy Ruggles’s lens, the world opens up to reveal her mind’s eye to the viewer.
Tammy Ruggles, artist and legally blind photographer, displays the sort of quiet tenacity and optimism that has seen her overcome a lifetime of challenges. She is an inspiration not only to those whose disabilities make them feel as if their world is restricted, but to everyone who is apprehensive about trying something new, something unusual, something unexpected.