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The Blind Mountain Hiker Who Paints What He Feels

British landscape artist Keith Salmon didn't let the loss of sight disrupt his love of painting the outdoors.

Keith Salmon is a British landscape artist. A family move to Wales at the age of ten fostered a love of hill walking, which endured after diabetic retinopathy robbed him of his sight in his thirties. Since moving to Scotland in 1998, 56-year-old Keith has climbed more than one hundred Scottish mountains–known as Munros– and features the rugged vistas of his adopted home in his abstract landscapes.

Where did your love of mountains come from?

I was born in Essex, southeast England, but in 1969, when I was ten, my father got a job in Wales and we moved there as a family. My father had always been an outdoors man. We arrived in April and by the middle of the summer he’d started taking us out onto the beautiful low mid-Wales hills. My mum and sister quickly got fed up with spending their Saturday afternoons trudging across damp fly-ridden hills, but I caught the bug and it’s been with me ever since. We didn’t always get on too well, my dad and I, but he gave me a love of hills and wild places.

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You originally studied and worked in sculpture. How did your work change after your sight started to fail?

My sight failed very, very quickly in 1990. For about three months I did nothing, I couldn’t get my head around how I’d work as an artist if my sight was failing. Then I realized I needed to keep doing as much as possible. I decided to put the sculpture aside and concentrate on the visual side, drawing and painting, thinking that if I lost all my sight I could perhaps go back to sculpture, and work in a purely tactile way.

I spent the next eight years just trying different things out. During these years my sight was failing rapidly, so it was very much taking one step forward and one step back. I’d figure how to work with the sight I had and then it would get worse again so it was a phase of constant readapting.

By 1996 I had only a little sight in one eye but my condition had stabilized. When I moved to Scotland I was starting to get a bit more confident, I began painting with broad brushes and creating these small paintings based on man made structures: buildings, street scenes, very abstract. I was almost bludgeoning the painting, there was no finesse in it but the paintings were quite nice.

How did you adapt to walking the hills without your sight?

When my sight started to go I stopped walking, I thought it would be too dangerous. But then a few months later I thought no, I’ve got to go back to it. I bought a traditional walking stick and asked my partner if she’d guide me. We tried and found it was possible: slow, but I could get back into the hills relatively safely.

In 2001, I went on a summer mountain skills course for blind and visually impaired people at Glenmore Lodge, the UK’s leading outdoor centre. There were six other visually impaired people and each person had a sighted volunteer guide. The great bit for me was that this wasn’t an adventure holiday for blind people: this was a proper mountain skills course, adapted for the needs of people who are visually impaired.

Before the course I had felt very guilty about being in the mountains. I wondered what people would say if they found out the guy who used a white cane around town was throwing it aside every few weeks, donning walking boots and trudging across the mountains. I figured I’d get quite a slagging off. But here was the top mountain authority in the land saying “yeah it’s fine for you to walk in the mountains”. So I thought: I can do this, and no one’s going to mind, and the guilt disappeared.

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Have you encountered any resistance to the guy with the white cane walking in the hills?

There was one trip I organized with a couple of friends to do the South Glen Shiel ridge. It’s a twenty-four kilometer ridge walk taking in seven Munros. One of my mates invited his friend to join us, and when this guy found out I couldn’t see he was really put out about it. In the end he and two other mates climbed the ridge from one end, and Nita and I and another chap climbed it from another end. The chap who was concerned about me wouldn’t walk with us, because I think he was fairly certain that we would come a cropper. Which we didn’t.

Have you ever run into trouble in the mountains?

We’ve had a few interesting times. The Scottish mountains are dangerous. They’re not that big compared to other countries’ mountains, but they’re very wild and rugged. Scotland’s a northern country right on the side of the Atlantic so the weather changes so quickly. Changes in weather conditions is what catches most people out.

One December Nita and I walked out to a Munro, and we were returning along the same route. The weather caught us out and the cloud had come down; you couldn’t see that much, and we thought we’d just follow our footprints back.

We hadn’t realized but another walker had been on the hill and taken a different route, and we were following their footprints. We suddenly came to this big drop in thick cloud and realized what we’d done and how stupid we’d been. We had to stop and work out where we were and set a compass course back to where we needed to be. In December the light is very short and we knew we only had an hour of daylight left. For me that is dangerous as the little sight I have goes to almost total blindness in the dark.  Fortunately we had the skills and experience to work out where we were and got off the hill just as it was getting dark.

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Do you use any special equipment on the mountain?

For anyone who can’t see too well, walking poles are fabulous. Most people use them to steady themselves and to take the pressure off their knees. But to someone who’s visually impaired, these poles are like white canes with attitude. Not only are they doing everything most walkers use them for, but the pole can tell you the depth and condition of the ground in front of you. You get so much information from the feel and the sound of the poles touching the ground.

Your partner of 29 years, Nita, is also your guide. How has your guiding relationship grown?

Over the years Nita and I have walked together so much she knows what she needs to tell me. As soon as we get onto something difficult, I get right behind her so that when I’m looking down I can just see the heels of her boots with the little bit of sight I have. That way I know whether she’s moving to the right or the left, and I can hear her footsteps, so even before she tells me about a big step ahead I’ll have heard it.

If I go walking with someone else, that’s always more dangerous. However careful they think they are, it’s very difficult to understand how people see. One of the big questions I’m always asked is “what can you see”? When you speak to other visually impaired people most realise that everyone sees differently, so learning to work with a guide is a unique relationship.

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Your walking expeditions function as fieldwork for your paintings. How do you gather material?

I hold a binocular in my left hand and hold it up to my right eye, the eye that has a little sight. I balance my sketchbook and peer through the binocular and scribble almost blind, occasionally looking down to see what’s on the page. The purpose of this isn’t so much to end up with a beautiful drawing, it’s to force me to stop walking and try and take in the scene in front of me. I still take photos, but I use photos as a memory jogger, a starting point. The biggest amount that goes into the amount of my paintings is just the memories, the hours and hours we spend in these places.

My paintings are titled with a specific place in mind, they’re not that accurate, they’re not meant to be. I’m just trying to convey something of the spirit of the place and my experience of being there.

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What’s been your biggest mountaineering achievement?

In Scotland there are two hundred and eighty two Munros; peaks over three thousand feet. It´s become popular to try and walk all of them, and people who do this are known as Munro baggers.

When we started walking regularly after we moved to Scotland I suddenly realized I’d walked ten Munros. I knew I’d never climb all two hundred and eighty two, but I thought, maybe I could do twenty. After that I thought, let’s climb fifty. Then the logical thing was to reach one hundred. For about three years every walk was aimed at climbing another Munro, sometimes two or even three a day.

Eventually, in 2008 Nita and I stood on what was my hundredth Munro. It was a winter day, and we were on a mountain called Avaconich(?). It’s a big, high plateau of snow and ice with very steep sides and we stood there and looked. I remember I had a couple of tears in my eyes. It was a big day for me.

Since then I’ve become more sensible. We explore the smaller, less frequented mountains and hills and it’s great. Sometimes you can be out all day and not see a soul, yet you know that just two miles away there’s a big Munro and there’s going to be fifty climbers on it.

What are your thoughts on being known as a visually impaired painter?

I’m a professional artist who happens to be visually impaired as opposed to a visually impaired artist. For me that’s an important distinction. Being tagged with the label of a blind artist makes a difference in how people perceive my work and lot of people don’t see me as a professional painter, which I am. I don’t often blow my own trumpet but my work is pretty good these days. I’m certainly up there with the better landscape painters in Scotland. But when people see the label “blind artist” they often think, he can’t be a serious artist, and they don’t buy my work. In these so-called enlightened days you’d think that wouldn’t be the case, but sadly it is.

You can see more of Keith’s work at http://www.keithsalmon.org/.