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Artist David Johnson on articulating blindness: ‘My research is about what seeing really is.’

Photograph of David Johnson, reflected in a mirror, which is made up of jigsaw pieces
David Johnson
David Johnson is a blind artist and PhD student in the School of Arts and Humanities. He spoke to us about his practice-led research, which is both a philosophical investigation into the nature of seeing and a sculptural articulation of his experience of blindness.

My research is about looking into what seeing really is, [...] trying to understand that better, and trying to understand blindness better
David Johnson

I identify as a blind person and as a blind artist. 

I have a hereditary genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa which means over time my retina has degenerated. I originally went to art school as a painter, but retrained as a pianist, then a piano tuner, when it became clear I would lose my sight by mid-life.

The artist David Johnson on his hands and knees installing the work 'Too Big to Feel' on a grassy slope
David Johnson installing ‘Too Big to Feel’, 2015
When I went totally blind in my mid-30s I got back into art through my children; discussing the art they made, feeling it and getting my head round it. I started going to audio described events at galleries where I discovered that with clever descriptions one can experience art in a vivid way. 

When I started making again, I veered more towards 3D making. I also studied philosophy through The Open University, and found that philosophical studies fell happily into the artwork I was making and vice versa. 

My art can’t do anything but come from blindness and this blindness brought me to the RCA. 

In 2015 I was invited to show a sculpture at a conference about blindness within the arts. This was a turning point for me. I realised the things that excited me about art when I could see were still with me, just in a different way. 

I’m now doing a practice-led PhD at the RCA, specialising in sculpture in its broadest definition because I include things such as sound. My research is about examining what seeing really is, what's really happening when you look at and see something, trying to understand that better, and trying to understand blindness better.

Doing this PhD is giving me the chance to articulate my experience using all sorts of procedures with amazing technicians and facilities which wouldn’t be possible elsewhere. It’s given me a leg up in expressing a blind aesthetic
David Johnson
Something art investigates and tries to show is the way that we use implication. We don't need much sensory evidence of an object to understand a whole, or at least a major part of the object. You only need to see a hint of something visual to understand it. You can tell the whole of an object from tiny moments of touch.

A white 3d printed sculpture
Transient Objects Caught in a Multi-Dimensional Moment of Impossible Pringles, David Johnson 2020
Doing this PhD is giving me the chance to articulate my experience using all sorts of procedures with amazing technicians and facilities which wouldn’t be possible elsewhere. It’s given me a leg-up in expressing a blind aesthetic. 

Due to Covid-19 my study has been a split experience. 

Pre-lockdown, on campus, I made great friends with other students who, as well as discussing work, helped me get around the building! Then lockdown came along and everything moved online. While I would rather be physically there, I’ve probably attended more lectures and talks than if I was there. It’s easier to connect up to a Zoom meeting than to go onto campus.

For me art making is about getting your hands dirty.

I’ve missed not being there from that point of view, being able to literally rub shoulders with staff and students. I have been able to use facilities remotely by phoning or emailing the technicians, working in a very different, more collaborative way.

All the technicians in CNC, Rapidform, 3D print and ceramics have been incredibly helpful. Student Support have also been amazingly supportive, always at the end of the phone if I get stuck.
David Johnson
All the technicians in CNC, Rapidform, 3D print and ceramics have been incredibly helpful. Student Support have also been amazingly supportive, always at the end of the phone if I get stuck.

For a few years I have run workshops for visually impaired people at the Royal Academy.

screenshot of a documentary featuring David Johnson
David featured in The Disordered Eye, BBC, 2020
This is how I came to be part of The Disordered Eye, a BBC documentary looking at art through the lens of impaired vision. Richard Butchins, who made the documentary, invited me to deliver one of my life drawing sessions. 3D prints of the model, in this case Richard, are handed around for participants to handle. They then make sculptures or drawings from this and audio descriptions.

For now I’m ploughing through my PhD.

It takes up an enormous amount of headspace. All the opportunities available at the RCA can be distracting. I find myself getting into little art tangents which don’t always have a direct link to my research! It’s so exciting being able to plug into those resources. I’ll miss them when I graduate.

Sculpture of a white milk bottle emerging from a black background
Milk, David Johnson 2010

Find out more about PhD study in Arts and Humanities and Disability Support at the RCA. And read some of David's writing in Prova the School of Arts & Humanities research journal.