Blind painter finds his way with partnership and creation
A Portrait of the ArtistBenjamin Schwartz

Blind painter finds his way with partnership and creation

'Benny Blindspots' needed years to perceive life in a new way; now that he does, he can’t unsee it.

Benjamin Schwartz sits inside his studio. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)
Benjamin Schwartz sits inside his studio. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Benjamin Schwartz descended to his studio. He switched eyewear from opaque black to translucent yellow. Behind the artist were suspended canvases. There were dozens in his proximity, hundreds more in the subterranean space. Each painting was marked with feverish lines and vibrant colors. Some of the works had scribbled figures.

“It’s always my wife,” he said.

Schwartz’s atelier is in the basement of their Squirrel Hill home.

Getting downstairs, one passes several of the artist’s works.

“Those are me,” he said.

There’s also a mirror.

“That’s you,” he added.

Schwartz, 35, often jokes about sight. He’s legally blind.

It wasn’t always that way, he told the Chronicle.

Ten years ago Schwartz had full vision and a bright future. After attending Yeshiva Schools of Pittsburgh, he graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in psychology. He hoped to begin a doctoral program.

Painting by Benjamin Schwartz. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Schwartz researched neurodevelopmental disabilities. He worked in home health care and as support staff for adults with special needs. He and his wife lived in Coal Center, Pennsylvania. He often drove to Pittsburgh for employment, but the hourlong commute on PA-43 grew taxing. He started feeling nauseous. Some days, he needed to pull over and vomit.

At work, he noticed a “floatiness,” he said.

Schwartz experienced increased fatigue. He went to the UPMC Headache Center.

“They were great there, but I was more or less being treated for vestibular migraines,” he said.

“Nothing was working and all they knew was that I had very small bilateral lesions on the lower part of the medulla on the cerebellar peduncle. They’re tiny, but because they’re on the brainstem they’re vital and key to a lot.”

Schwartz’s symptoms persisted for six months. He’d sleep 8-20 hours a day. His sturdy six-foot frame diminished until he weighed about 140 pounds.

“That was a nightmare,” he said.

One day, after waking, he noticed his vision was distorted. He removed his contacts but the problem remained. He drove from Coal Center to Pittsburgh to see his optometrist.

As Schwartz pressed his face against the phoropter, the optometrist asked, “Better or worse?”

“I was like, ‘No, no, no, no,’” Schwartz said.

The optometrist told Schwartz to see an ophthalmologist.

Schwartz returned to Coal Center and called his doctor.

“That’s sort of when I think it all pieced together for him,” Schwartz said.

The physician told Schwartz to get to the hospital immediately.

Schwartz agreed, but decided he was done driving. He phoned his wife.

“Before that, though, I poured a large glass of whiskey over ice — that’s just the honest truth,” he said. “It was crazy. I knew I was sick as hell. All the time. For six months. But I didn’t ever think something was going to happen to my vision.”

Schwartz didn’t have any eye pain, but overnight his sight decreased from 20/20 with glasses to 20/400, he said.

At the hospital he was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation in the optic nerve and spinal cord. An estimated 4,000 to 8,000 people in the U.S. have NMO.

A visit to the Mayo Clinic confirmed the diagnosis.

Painting by Benjamin Schwartz. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Schwartz grew up religiously observant. After sickness set in, he continued practicing Judaism but his spirit declined. He started drinking heavily.

“My morality was going down more than I would care to recollect in terms of how I was treating other people,” he said. “I hit a point where I was like, ‘This disease and this critical loss of vision — central blind spots right smack in the middle of where you want to have vision — you can either let it destroy you, because it’s about to, or you can make something out of it.’”

Schwartz attended Alcoholics Anonymous.

The messages reminded him of grade school teachings, he said: “They talk about surrender, but they’re talking about bittul.”

In English, bittul means insignificant or nullification.

The idea, Schwartz said, was “nullify yourself. Stop. You’re not in control. You’re not planning the f—ing universe. Just be.”

It was a “wake-up call,” the artist continued, but so was a conversation with a friend.

About five years ago, Schwartz attended an engagement party. He ran into an acquaintance who asked how he was holding up.

Schwartz replied that he wasn’t, and shared feelings of monotony and disinterest.

Painting by Benjamin Schwartz. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

The friend said, “If you’re bored, create, create, create.”

That conversation “impacted me,” Schwartz said. “I thought about it from the sort of Torah perspective in terms of being created — that we’re all created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God) — and I started to recognize why I was feeling dead inside. I felt like I was on a roller coaster. I wanted to get off but I was already locked in.”

Schwartz thought about the conversation, about his wife, about their child.

“It gave me that spark to probably stop drinking,” he said.

In grade school, Schwartz often doodled. Worksheets, notebooks and even margins of his Talmudic tracts were filled with drawings. He never painted.

While at the party, his friend told him to paint.

Schwartz left the get-together, went home and noticed his son was sleeping. He retrieved a small metal statue of a cellist. He found paper and pastels, and remembered there was a lit candle at the party.

The glow “made the whole table disappear,” he said.

Schwartz began painting the cellist and candle.

He committed himself, he said, to “capturing and manipulating what I see in front of me.”

That perspective “saved the way I was looking at life,” he added. “I was stuck in my own head, especially at the beginning, and I just felt like every time I opened my eyes I was reminded that I was sick. When I started painting after that night, it was like, OK, I can actually take something from what I see every day and consciously or unconsciously put that on canvas and play with it.”

Initially, Schwartz worked in his dining room. The mess he created, however, prompted him to relocate. He found an unheated garage without plumbing. The distance, though, required his wife or mother to drive him there. Schwartz kept painting. He sold a few images and teamed up with ArtLifting.

The Boston-based company promotes artists affected by disabilities and housing insecurity by selling their work. Artists earn 55% of the profits, and the company earns 44%, with 1% of sales directed to a fund that provides supplies to art groups nationwide.

Thanks to ArtLifting, Schwartz said, Bank of America recently bought 50 of his prints.

Thousands of people will see his work.

“The fact that it’s pleasing to people is very gratifying to me, and also very amusing and confusing,” he said. “I can’t see the same as other people. I don’t see the color palette the same, so we never see the same painting.”

Benjamin Schwartz inspects a painting. (Photo by Adam Reinherz)

Schwartz’s attitude exhibits hints of Roland Barthes’ literary theory. According to the French philosopher, the meaning of the text is not determined by its author but by the reader; in this way, the author dies upon the creation of the work.

“Death is a good way to put it,” Schwartz said. “I, as the author of this painting, when I back up seven feet, I can hardly see the painting at all, so it’s already gone. It’s only there when I’m up close to it. And that’s my whole life. It’s almost like the thing only exists if it’s right in front of me. I do like to make sure that the painting is pleasing to me up close, and then from a few feet back, but after that, it’s for the people.”

There’s a sort of odd generosity in the process, Schwartz continued: “It’s like the most giving art of all because I can’t even see what the hell I did.”

More than an hour has passed since Schwartz descended the stairs to his studio.

His fingers are blue — less from the chill of a Pittsburgh cellar in February than from an unfinished work.

Five years after that conversation with his friend, three years since moving into this space, and 10 years since the initial diagnosis, Schwartz still has chronic pain.

Daily painting has netted modest financial returns and an understanding of partnerships.

“My wife works very, very hard, but it’s a single income. I get occasional bits from ArtLifting,” he said.

Next to the stairs is a railing that Schwartz erected. Friends helped finish the studio’s remaining space.

“There are delusions of greatness, that eventually you’ll be taken care of, and that a partnership with Hashem will make everything successful,” he said.

The artist, who goes by “Benny Blindspots,” required years to perceive life in a new way. Now that he does, he can’t unsee it.

Dealing with this diagnosis was “a tall ask, a tall order,” he said. “This is a serious thing. It’s not going away; it’s not a death sentence — it’s a life sentence. I was able to start to formulate those strategies and have some acceptance but that was once I started building, creating, becoming a builder and a creator.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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