Local artist experiences blindness, develops “paint braille system” to continue doing what he loves

Ferguson has a set of drums he plays in his art studio. He also plays for his church. Karamie Sullivan photos.

Columbia native Ron Ferguson has a passion for art. After finishing his time in the Navy he became an art teacher in Hampton, and created many pieces himself, in his free time.

He was given the nickname “Grits Man” for using actual grits as a main ingredient in his 3-D work. He also has a studio behind his house in Richland County where he has taught many children about painting, drawing, and 3-D art.

Ferguson began to experience eyesight problems caused by glaucoma and went to the V.A. hospital for a procedure. According to Ferguson, the procedure he underwent that was supposed to prevent the glaucoma from getting worse, actually had the adverse effect. Weeks after his operation, Ferguson could feel himself losing his eyesight. Now, he is completely blind in one eye, and can only see “glimmers of light” in his other. His loss of eyesight took a heavy toll on his creativity.

“I sat it out for awhile. There were some moments I was depressed and didn’t think I’d do anything else,” he said. “But then I’d spend a lot of time with my music, and I intensified my drum beating in church.”

The Grits Man said he finally came to the realization that blindness wasn’t going to keep him from making his art. “One day I said, I’m going to be determined to not let this stop me from doing the thing I’m so passionately in love with. Art is my life,” he said.

So, he used his creativity to make his own “paint braille system,” to help him identify what color is inside each bottle. “I make a little tape ball and put it on the bottles. One ball on the bottom for white paint, two at the bottom for black.” He said if he can identify the three primary colors, he can use them to mix other colors. “At the top of the paint I put one ball for yellow, two for red, and three for blue.” His wife helps him identify what color the bottles are when he attaches the balls of tape.

Ferguson has now adapted to an abstract style. He puts the colors on a canvas, adds a little water, and allows them to merge together, making their own design. He’s also done a few 3-D mask pieces, utilizing his sense of touch to create the face shape.

Recent 3-D pieces Ferguson created while blind. Made with grits as main ingredient.

“My style changed drastically of course, but once you learn the secret of colors, like the properties of color – hue, value, and intensity – you don’t really need no eyes to make art,” he said. “The colors are like magic, they can almost make it on their own.”

Ferguson’s wife, Emma, said she feels sympathy for her husband, and wants to help him with his work. “He tells me what to mix together, and sometimes I get it wrong, but you know, most of the time we’ll just do it over again,” she said.

Emma said she admires the strength her husband has shown after losing his sight. “He is really a pillar for me, because he’s going through blindness but he’s still determined to do whatever he has been doing before. And most of the time, he accomplishes it too,” she said.

What’s next for Ferguson? He wants to continue his love of teaching art. “I would like to teach a ceramics class for the blind,” he said. “Blind people can still use their hands, your cognitive abilities actually intensify.”

His positivity is evident, and said even after everything he’s gone through, he feels like a blessed man.  Now, he decided he wants to change his nickname from “Grits Man” to “Grit Man.”

“I like Grit Man because it sounds spunkier, you know?  Grit is something I got,” he said.  “And after all the stuff I’ve been through, I say I’ve got grit, because I’ve been through the you-know-what. Know what I mean?”

Anyone interested in viewing or purchasing Ferguson’s art can contact him at 803-667-0937.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Columbia, Local Voices, Richland County