She's Blind-And She Paints Professionally

After losing her sight, she reinvented herself as an artist

By Dana Hudepohl
Ketra Oberlander, in her studio with one of her paintings
Photograph: Photo By Lanabelle Corpuz

KETRA OBERLANDER, 47, SANTA CLARA, CA

In 1999, when she was 37, Ketra Oberlander started complaining about her vision. She had to wear sunglasses indoors because she found the light too bright; she started banging into things by accident, battering her shins and toes. It took three years and brand-new high-tech testing at a university medical center to get diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder called cone dystrophy. By 40, Oberlander was legally blind. “The only way I can describe my vision to others is it’s as if I were staring at the sun with shortening smeared on my glasses,” she says. 

And Oberlander had lost her job as a writer and marketing and communication specialist in Silicon Valley, a casualty of the dot-com bust. With her extra time, she started going to an art class within walking distance of her home. She’d always liked art and had been a modest art collector over the years, picking up pieces at festivals, and writing no longer satisfied her need for a creative outlet. “Blindness hits so deep that I found verbal communication inadequate,” she says. “Painting seemed like a way to express the place words can’t go.” Feeling increasingly isolated by her disability, art helped her connect. “Everyone thought I was nuts but they were too polite to say it,” she says. “I thought it would be fun.” For her, painting isn’t the main challenge: "People are amazed I paint," she says. "But that’s nothing compared to crossing the street or frying chicken. That’s the dangerous stuff." 

She started painting close-up views of flowers after blowing up images on her computer that her husband had taken to show her what all of her toiling in their garden had amounted to—the only way she could see it at all. Painting flowers also offered a profound way to connect to others. “When a normally sighted person bends down to enjoy the fragrance of a flower for a moment, her face is close enough that she and I share a point of view,” Oberlander says. She joined the Santa Clara Art Association and displayed her work at its regional show. “I sold six prints at my first art festival,” she says. She wanted to exhibit her paintings more often, but she had a tough time negotiating the logistics: loading a truck, finding someone to drive, and setting up a display. For a while, she sent her work by Fed Ex to shows around the country. She sold some paintings and even started winning awards. “But the financials were killing me,” she says. “I was shelling out all this money for framing, packaging and shipping and I thought, ‘How am I ever going to make money at this?’” She and her husband, a software developer who was also laid off, were riding out the bust. They had cash reserves from when they was working and a modest inheritance from when Oberlander’s mother died.

That’s when she realized that just as writers sell the rights to their work for publication, artists could do the same. Perhaps she could license her paintings to manufacturers of stationery, bedding, wallpaper or china. She sought out an agent to help match her work to retailers. “Then I thought, ‘Holy crap! If this works for me, I can scale it and help other people as well,’” she says. “That’s when I came on fire. Who else would understand the problems that a disabled artist faces?”

In 2008, Oberlander founded Art of Possibility Studios, a pioneering art licensing agency that represents artists with physical disabilities. “The dirty little secret is that the unemployment rate of blind people is 70 percent,” she says. “And the 30 percent who are working are under-employed in tedious, boring jobs.” Oberlander represents five artists and, by press time, is hoping to double that number. “My attitude is I’ll sign them all,” she says. “My goal with the business is to create a path to profitability for disabled artists that long outlasts me. I want to change the world. How hard can it be?”      

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