Blind artist’s career soars

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Ferndale artist Brendan Patrick may be completely blind, but he still paints and shows at galleries. He gets a new tattoo whenever the spirit moves him, too.

“One of my artist-mentor friends said, ‘I don’t want to offend you, but I think your art is better than ever now,’ ” Patrick says. “I was like, ‘Uh — thank you. I think.’ ”

There’s more. Patrick, an irrepressible 34-year-old, was born with two club feet and has had to wear leg braces all his life.

He also has cystic fibrosis. Eight years ago he had a double lung transplant, which is when his vision conked out — a side-effect, he says, of the syndrome. But there’s no squelching his abundant spirit.

Patrick plays guitar and bass in two local rock bands, Goblin Claw and Wretched Sights. And his art career’s on fire. He just got back from Pittsburgh’s “Art All Night” festival, where he he was invited — yeah, the blind guy — to do live-painting demonstrations.

You might say someone should make a movie about this character. Happily, someone is. His best friend, filmmaker Rob Cousineau, is a year and a half into a documentary about his buddy’s remarkable life he’s planning to call, “Can’t See Sh*t.”

“We’re hoping people will laugh,” says Cousineau, 32, hanging out one recent morning in Patrick’s living room, “but in any case, the title just totally captures Brendan.”

Cousineau and his business partner, Chris Rosik, say they hope to finish by mid-2017, when they’ll try to place “Can’t See Sh*t” in film festivals nationwide.

They’ve got two months left on an crowd-sourcing campaign to raise the remaining $50,000 needed to wrap up the project.

Patrick’s willing to pitch in. “I volunteered to go do the pathetic blind-guy thing and beg in Birmingham,” he says.

Cousineau and Patrick met as teenagers at the Wired Frog in Roseville.

“Our bands played a show together,” Patrick says, “and we just hit it off.”

In the best tradition of backhanded male affection, they’ve always operated on a strict no-sympathy policy as far as Patrick’s afflictions go. Before the lung transplant, when he had trouble breathing and getting around, the stock response was, “Way to fake it, man.”

“Brendan always had the idea we should treat his illness as an annoyance,” Cousineau says. “Even when young,” he adds, “Brendan didn’t get treated as the sick kid. He played roller hockey in leg braces. He did all the things other kids did.”

Another friend and bandmate, Eastpointe tattoo artist Tom Beste, says Patrick taught him how to tattoo before the latter had to give up the profession. (Cousineau pulls up his pant leg to show the tattoo Patrick gave him after he lost his sight. It’s not pretty.)

Beste calls Patrick his mentor, and says he particularly admires the artist’s refusal to give in to difficulty.

“He’s very stubborn,” Beste says, “and he’s very cynical. I admire his cynicism and his upbeat attitude about everything.”

Patrick jumps up to grab something in the kitchen, moving for all the world like he had perfect sight.

“There’s a backpack in your path,” Cousineau warns, and Patrick pokes gingerly with his foot till he finds it.

“I often forget Brendan’s blind,” the filmmaker says, shaking his head. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Hey — look at this,’ and walk away, leaving him there. It’s a big thing to remember.”

Given how energetic he is, it’s also easy to forget that Patrick — like all cystic-fibrosis patients who’ve had lung transplants — may be on a short tether, time-wise. That’s one of the reasons Cousineau’s rushing to finish the documentary.

“The average life expectancy post-transplant is five years,” says Shelly Francis, executive director of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Michigan Chapter. “However, we have several patients who are more than 15 years post-transplant. Of course,” she adds, “we have some who never make it to five years.”

The foundation’s registry counts 30,000 Americans with CF , which occurs when both parents have copies of the same defective gene that causes a thick, debilitating build-up of mucus in the lungs and other organs.

“One in 29 Americans is a symptomless carrier,” Francis says, “so if they meet up with another one-in-29, they have a 25-percent chance of passing it on to their offspring.” Treatments, which hold the condition at bay, work with just 48 percent of patients.

In the last two years before he got his new lungs in 2008, Patrick’s weight dropped to 84 pounds and he had be on oxygen constantly.

“I could hardly move from the bedroom to the bathroom,” he says. “The doctors told my parents they should be prepared to lose me, which is kind of weird. I asked if I could sculpt my gravestone first.”

But now?

“I’m awesome,” he says with a laugh. “I’m in such great shape. I haven’t had any complications, which most lung transplants have had by now. I’m totally healthy!” (For good measure, he knocks twice on the wooden coffee table.)

Patrick’s poured his good health and new-found energy into his artwork, which draws heavily on images from science fiction and monster movies.

“All my art is goblins and war scenes,” he says. “It’s super-nerdy.”

How does a blind guy paint? Patrick uses a craft paint that puffs up as it dries, so he can feel the outline.

“It’s sort of like a coloring book,” he says. “I try to stay within the lines, though I’m not sure I always do. The fun part is hearing people explain my artwork to me. I see how it looks through their eyes, which is awesome.”

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

How to help

Want to play a part in making the documentary on Brendan Patrick a reality? Click here to contribute to “Can’t See Sh*t”.