Image description: Clarke Reynolds’ pictured by the sea in his Braille Suit, bright yellow with the braille alphabet in black.
Clarke Reynolds’ Braille Eggs. Using black eggs in yellow egg-cartons, the word ‘ART’ is spelled out.
Artist Clarke Reynolds talks to Co-founder of Gatekeeper Magazine Lucy Alves about growing up and navigating his artistic practice alongside blindness. He tracks his journey as an artist from stacking shelves and dental design to braille installations and industry success.
Image description: Clarke Reynolds’ piece titled ‘MY ROSETTA STONE’, created in conjunction with the ‘Society for Embroidered Work’ exhibition for Rome art week. Denim blue fabric patches sewn together and embroidered with braille made from buttons.
Clarke Reynolds was blind in one eye from the age of six, but even then he knew he ‘wanted to be an artist’, telling Lucy ‘there was no other career for me’. After a tricky few years at school, Clarke later returned to education and qualified with a diploma in Art and Design. It is clear that, for Clarke, becoming an ‘artist’ meant acquiring something tangible and practical, an interesting intricacy of the creative world.
To address his love of films and his commitment to artistry, Clarke switched paths to a degree in model making. He graduated in 2006, ‘just as the world was going to pot’. Clarke grappled with the infamous 2007 financial crisis; a shaky start to a creative career that artists born out of the pandemic are unfortunately already accustomed to.
Once graduated, Clarke describes facing the dizzying double-bind all too familiar for young creatives: ‘there are jobs out there, but you need the experience. But how d’you get experience if no one gives you the job?’. This led to ten years of stacking shelves until a job finally surfaced which would use his degree — a dental model maker. A turning point for Clarke, it actually ‘felt like a proper job’. He finally had his foot in the creative door.
‘One day we were playing darts and enjoying our lunch break and I noticed a dark shadow in my eye. I just thought it was tiredness or stress because I'm working in very fine detail but I went to the opticians and then got referred to the hospital. The first thing they said to me is, do you drive? and I go, ‘yes’. He said ‘hand over your license, you're going blind.’ That was it.’
Clarke’s experience of going blind in both eyes was not an ‘Oh My God, I’m going blind’ moment. He adapted his practices and continued his artistic endeavour. What could have been, as a visual artist, ‘the worst experience ever’ led Clarke to an interest in textiles as ‘a way of physically feeling something rather than seeing’, and to the impassioned exploration of the English language and ‘the connection between what you hear and what you touch.’ As a self-proclaimed ‘big pointillism fan’, Clarke tapped into what had been a constant element of his artwork, telling Lucy ‘I have always been fascinated with dots.’ Clarke got hold of a braille typewriter a few years ago, ‘the most amazing machine ever.’ It was then that it all changed. ‘I learned braille and something just clicked in my head. It’s like, why can’t this be used as an art form?’
Becoming ‘The Blind Braille Artist’...
People know me as ‘The Blind Braille Artist’, Clarke quips. He began exploring braille as a ‘visual, as well as a tactile’ art form and it quickly became his trademark. This bold, graphic medium sparks a conversation about sight loss that this country is all too ‘reserved’ to talk about. His Braille art gives viewers, especially those not affected by sight loss, a point of interaction that can shatter taboos. Clarke tells Lucy ‘I'm registered blind, but my sight hasn’t completely gone. People think it is this complete darkness, but it's not the case. Only 3% of blind people have complete darkness. You know, every blind person sees differently’.
For Clarke, seeing is ‘like looking underwater’, a recognisable sensation for most. He describes how he sees darkness, light, and blurred shapes and although he has ‘lost the ability to see colour, [he] work[s] in colour, so It’s all about memory’.
Image descriptions: (Left) Clarke Reynolds’ 2021 Yellow Edge ‘Decoding Braille, Decoding Me’ exhibition poster. The title of the exhibition is written around Clarke’s colourful braille alphabet piece. (Right) Clarke Reynolds’ 2019 ‘Seeing Without Seeing’ exhibition at the Yellow Edge Gallery poster, featuring an embroidered self-portrait set against a textile and button braille background.
The pandemic offered Clarke an opportunity to build a portfolio of exhibitions as everything moved online. Clarke built up six online exhibitions, two of which were international, and acquired a space to develop his use of braille as visual art, all while coordinating two large-scale community projects.
Breaking down barriers…
Clarke wants people with sight to learn braille so ‘it can be integrated more and more’. His art invites the viewer to not only touch, but decode it. His desire to break the stigma around disability is palpable, as he describes how ‘with everything in society, disabled artists have become another tick box. We can’t coexist with non-disabled artists without being labelled’.
‘My ambition is, one day, that I'm as big as the likes of Damien Hurst and I will exhibit alongside him and people will stand back and understand that I'm no different from an artist that is not disabled’.
There are physical barriers to the art world that need dismantling. Clarke talks about how he misses going to galleries because ‘the audio descriptions do not do justice to the artwork you’re seeing. They don’t capture the emotion’. They need more funding and better infrastructure. For Clarke, being able to touch work is a privilege, ‘I’m sure Henry Moore, when he made those sculptures he wanted them to be touched’. He believes that galleries should start embracing that more, insisting ‘we’re not going to wreck it!’ Clarke recommends Aspex gallery in Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth for amazing touch tours and we join him in urging other galleries to follow suit.
Clarke is expanding outwards as an artist. He and fellow artist Fae Kilburn curated the ‘Shapes and Patterns in Creativity’ exhibition at the Yellow Edge Gallery in Gosport to showcase the work of 18 artists from all over the UK. Another exhibition at the Yellow Edge, ‘Seeing Without Seeing’, came with a disclaimer: ‘Please do touch’ and his most recent work there,‘Decoding Braille, Decoding Me’, is due to tour the BASE gallery in Newbury in January 2022. Clarke has left his mark in Southampton city centre too, with a rainbow-coloured braille-decorated bench installation.
Image description: Clarke Reynolds’ Rainbow Braille Bench in Southampton City Centre. The braille spells out ‘HOPE!’ and ‘LOVE!’ on the front and the entire braille alphabet is on the back.
Clarke has become an ambassador for the Disability Arts Organisation running exhibitions as part of their ‘Outside In’ initiative, a platform for artists who face barriers in the art world, in an effort to create a fairer space. He is also working with the National Paralympic Heritageon an audio-described running race, creating a ‘wall of sound’ to highlight the impenetrable wall in live sporting events when poor audio descriptions alienate those with visual impairments. His next big exhibition ‘91 Divoc’ brings together visually-impaired artists for a ‘reflection of covid seen through our eyes’ and another installation, ‘To See Stars’for the We Shine Portsmouth project, will be emulating the sight of stars through sound and touch.
Clarke Reynolds’ 2021 ‘91DIVOC’ exhibition at the Oxo Tower Wharf poster, featuring images of Rachel Gadsden’s expressive abstract painting, Clarke’s alphabet ‘decoding’ art, and Fae Kilburn’s large etched sculptures. Book free tickets via Eventbrite.
Fast forward a few years from his shelf-stacking beginnings and Clarke is now a full-time artist. He is ‘living the dream’ having just moved into his first professional studio — a space in which he can create with total freedom. Clarke’s exploits have also come to the attention of King’s Cross Academy where a Year Six class has been named after him as an inspirational artist. Integral to his art practice is ‘working with all walks of life: Communities, schools, young people’. He wants to create art that can be accessed by anyone, ‘with or without a degree’.
His advice to any emerging artists? ‘Never give up. You’ll always get knocked back, but you’ve just got to keep plugging away’. He champions being an artist with an appetite, creating often, even in an evening after a shift at a ‘dead-end job’. He urges artists to constantly apply for everything and anything ‘outside the box’. ‘Look into a pub or a cafe and say, ‘do you mind If I hang up some artwork?’ and never ‘let rejection knock you down’. He advocates for confidently making your own space in the art world and also to ‘enjoy it, enjoy making and enjoy your practice. Art should always come from the heart, never the head.’
Clarke took something which had the ability to become a nightmare and turned it into his dream.
Resources for learning Braille:
Royal National Institute of Blind People resource: