Touched by Art

Despite his blindness, a Daphne painter uses his keen tactile skills and optimistic determination to produce memorable works of art.

by Adrian Hoff. Mobile Bay magazine, July 2014.




The exquisite vision of blind artist and educator Ricky Trione. (Original unedited text) by Adrian Hoff. Published Mobile Bay magazine, July 2014

The first five years of being blind, I was mainly learning how to be a blind person: learning to use a cane to get around, and to read braille; learning the software that allowed me to have a screen reader on my computer, and to navigate by listening to voices that are very fast talking.   Ricky Trione.


Ricky Trione is prolific. His colorful paintings brighten many private homes, as well as commercial and public buildings. They are not as detailed as the pen and ink drawings he produced when sighted. But neither are they abstracts, or softly defined impressionistic images. Many depict local sea life, like dolphins, mullet, and shrimp. His popular jubilee scenes spring from childhood memories. But individual creatures’ shapes and structure have been refined by touch. Trione’s perceptive fingers even enable him to accurately paint that which he has never actually seen.

I was surprised not to see his booth at Fairhope’s Arts & Crafts Festival in March, and by the dearth of new paintings when I visited his downtown Fairhope home in April. “I took a break from art for about two years. My inventory dwindled,” he explains. “I was asked to help start a non-profit foundation in Daphne. I just was too busy with that — it became a full time job. I left there in July of last year to focus on my art and to start rebuilding my inventory, but I didn’t have enough to do a big show.”

I wonder, momentarily, how quickly he’d resuscitate that saleable-stock if he quit accommodating every worthy cause that comes a-calling. But that would be out of character for the sightless artist who keeps nudging our conversation towards more favored topics: like his work in schools, and time spend helping those who are less fortunate than he is.

Born in Fairhope in 1957, Trione enjoyed normal vision for much of his life. His innate artistic abilities emerged in childhood. He preferred drawing to painting, and frequently spent time alone in his room with “a big old book called Rendering in Pen and Ink.” But he was no homebody.  “I grew up close to the bay in Daphne. Things were more innocent back then. Our parents would send us outside to play in the morning,” he recalls, “telling us to be home in time for supper. My brother, sister and I spent many summer days fishing and crabbing on the Mayday Pier. We got in on a lot of jubilees.”

Trione joined the Air Force after high school. He augmented his military pay by doing wedding invitations and greeting cards, and by selling his highly detailed pen and ink drawings at art fairs. “I would lightly sketch it with a pencil, to where I had the shapes down. Then I would come back in with a quill pen that I dipped in India ink,” he explains, adding that he routinely devoted several weeks to a single drawing. “I was a perfectionist. But my work was sterile. People have compared it to what you might see in a Marine Biology textbook.”

He views things differently now. “I'm a lot less fearful of making mistakes. My art is more free flowing; it’s all about color and texture. Thank goodness I had been sighted, because I remember colors,” he says. “I love color. But I think I took it for granted when I was sighted: I didn't really learn much about the use of color until after I was blind.”

Trione’s palette generally includes only white and the primary colors (red, blue, and yellow), which he initially placed randomly around the perimeter of a paper plate: like numbers on a clock face. His wife and others guided his fingers to the desired color. A precocious 8-year-old schoolgirl changed that about six years ago.

“I was doing a summer art camp, painting with 3rd and 4th graders. I asked if anyone knew the order of the colors in a rainbow. This little girl made me feel about an inch tall,” he recalls. “She said, ‘Mr. Ricky, you don't know that? Goodness! Just remember a man's name. Roy G Biv,’” he mimics, in an exaggerated Falsetto spiced with laughter. “‘Roy, that's red, orange, and yellow, the top three colors in the rainbow. G is for green, the middle color. And Biv is the bottom three colors: blue, indigo, and violet. Roy is warm. Biv is cool,’” his feigned monologue continues. “It was like this epiphany. Wow! I am in my 50s and I did not know any of this.”

He began organizing paints by color and tone, red at the top since it tops the rainbow. Around the clock, it’s Roy G. Biv, with white in the center. Trione shared his new setup with students at the Louisiana School for the Visually Impaired in Baton Rouge, and the Alabama School for the Blind in Talladega. “Art teachers at both places said they’d never thought about arranging the colors to where the kids would know where each was. They started using that system too: all because of that little girl in the 3rd grade.”

Trione lost sight in his left eye in 1993, to an object slung through the open window of his military vehicle by the wheels of a passing truck. “It was quite cumbersome trying to do things with one eye,” he recalls. “I had to learn to drive a car again, which was kind of scary at times. And it took over a year to get to where drawing felt natural again.”

In ‘95 Trione accepted medical retirement. He, wife Bonnie, and their children, returned permanently to Fairhope. A longstanding desire to work with people with special needs sparked a return to the University of South Alabama, for two years and a graduate degree. He then joined the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation as a vocational rehabilitation counselor. “I had to do home visits. But even with only one eye, I was able to drive myself,” he says. “Then I had my second accident, in 2000.”

Trione had pulled his state car off of the road to check its engine. The tread separated from the tire of a passing semi. It struck him in the face. He awoke in a hospital bed, totally blind. He worked as a counselor for another five years, despite having to cope with more than blindness. “I was hit in the head in the second accident. I had seizures until about 2010. I was on seizure medication, and there were times that I had seizures at work — thank goodness I haven't had one in awhile.”

A local newspaper profiled Trione. It referred to his artistry in the past tense, which caught the attention of an old friend. Vicky Cook. “She was Vicky Nix in high school,” explains Trione. “She called one night and said, ‘Ricky, I think you could still draw. You’ve got all of that in your mind. You just need to learn to use texture; you need to learn a way to do it and I'd love to help you.’” 

Cook introduced him to the Kennedy Center’s Very Special Arts program. It encourages and supports participation in the arts by people with disabilities. The pair collaborated on a large painting of a cardinal for a VSA fundraiser/art exhibit at the Eastern Shore Art Center. At her suggestion, Trione began sketching shapes with Elmer’s glue instead of a pencil. “I thought, gosh, I could draw a fish with Elmer's glue. When it’s dry, I could feel all of the lines of the fish, and then finger-paint it,” he says. “Back then, somebody had to guide me on the painting part. But it gave me the confidence that I really could do art again.”

Fabric paint in squirt bottles soon replaced the glue. Trione quickly learned to put it down by touch, while touching it so lightly that it didn’t smear. He developed a unique, recognizable style. “I tell the children that art is not about being perfect. It's about expressing yourself. I say, ‘my shrimp might not look like anybody else's shrimp. But when somebody sees that shrimp, they're going to know that it was done by Ricky Trione — I tell them, ‘you might decide that you want to do your shrimp different than me.’”

Trione has no formal art training. He did have an important mentor: his uncle, Ronald Trione, who had broken his neck diving off of the Daphne pier at age 17.  “When I was a little boy I’d sit and watch my uncle paint. He was a talented artist before his accident made him a quadriplegic,” Trione recalls. “His mother gave him a special mouthpiece that had a stick attached. She taped pencils and brushes to it. In the late '50s he took a correspondence course through the American Famous Artists’ School,” he continues.

The school paired famed illustrator Norman Rockwell with the elder Trione. His mother helped him do the assignments, then mailed them back to the school. Each was returned, tattooed with Rockwell’s hand-written notes of encouragement, and advice for improving various aspects of the painting. “Norman Rockwell inspired my uncle to do portraits. He was commissioned to paint Governor Albert Brewer’s official portrait in the late '60s. I think it still hangs in the state Capital,” Trione says. “I was inspired by how he overcame obstacles, how he never gave up. He always had a smile and he was always positive, despite being totally dependent on his mother and others. The only thing he could move was his head.”

That sounds like a chronically pleasant sightless man I know who’s also rather good at overcoming obstacles.

He is an active board member at local charitable organizations. His March 2015 address at the National Art Educators Association’s National Convention in New Orleans will be an encore appearance: he also presented at its 2009 National Convention in Minnesota. He’s scheduled to work with 40 Elementary School Teachers in Loxley this month: at a University of South Alabama-sponsored "Arts in Education Workshop" directed by USA’s Dr. Paige Vitulli.

His favorite job is educating, entertaining, and inspiring students. who Paint With Mr. Ricky. Thousands throughout the region, kindergarteners to college students, have painted with Mr. Ricky. “For instance, I was just invited to go to New Orleans in June, to do art with 17 blind children at the Lighthouse of the Blind. I am very excited about this opportunity!” explains Trione, who works mostly with sighted students. Until 2008, he was under contract with the Baldwin County School System to visit every school in the county, and its elementary schools still dominate his schedule. “With funds being so low now, the teachers have to be innovative. They treat me like an on-campus field trip. I’ll be home all day today and tomorrow, preparing 250 raised flower drawings for the Second Grade students at Foley Elementary School. The students will finger paint the art Thursday and Friday [May 1 & 2], to give to their Moms for Mothers Day,” adds Trione, who also does summer art camps, including one each year in Pritchard.”

When not promoting the arts in education, or educating aspiring young artists, Trione somehow finds time to paint — to create bright, colorful, happy art that looks like no one else’s.


Picture captions.

Jubilee Awaits (from the collection of Jack and Jolane Edwards):
“I love to actually feel crabs, shrimp, and all of that stuff, That really helped me learn how to draw them. I went to a lot of jubilees as a kid, and I've done some really big jubilee paintings,” Trione explains. “I first paint the bottom, then ask Bonnie if I've got the look of a sandy bottom in Mobile Bay. I draw just a few little baby flounders and let it dry. I feel them for reference, and put a crab right behind them or a big flounder,” he continues. “It’s a constant, repetitive cycle: draw a few creatures, stop to let it dry, draw a few more. Once finished, the bottom layer serves as reference for what’s above.” Stingrays swim on the surface, casting shadows on lower elements and providing the illusion of depth. Crabs scurry across the bottom, swim to the top, or even climb above the surface. “Near the end I use my finger to make some shiny water over the top. And I might come back with a little bit of a wash, like a light green water that's very light: just give it a little tint. Then I’ll ask Bonnie, ‘does this look like water?’ She might give me little tips to make it look right. Or she'll say ‘Stop! Don't touch it. Don't do anything else,’” he adds, laughing. “I'm really thankful that she's kind of my eyes.”

Dad & Cast Net:  This is the first painting that I did with glue, which I really got a lot of encouragement for. It’s a childhood memory of my dad throwing a cast net. That's me with my dad. I was a little fellow,” explains Trione. “You can feel the Elmer's glue. And after I did the glue I just came back in with a little bit of a brown on my finger, and on a little tiny brush or a Q-tip. I actually made little squiggly lines in the water, with the glue. The only way that I am able to view them is with my fingers. I wanted to be able to feel the waves, and the cast net. I received a lot of compliments on it. That really encouraged me. I think I did one more with glue, and then I was introduced to the puffy paint. Fabric paint. I really like its thickness. I can feel it better.

Grapes: With the grapes, I learned to make round circles, and then add the paint and let it dry. It takes about an hour to dry. Then I come back and add-and-dry, until it feels roundish. I tried to give each one of these grapes a round form. I really went over the vines quite a few times with the paint — to make it really thick, and kind of pop out. I've had other artists teaching me about shadowing, how to imagine light coming from a certain direction and the shadows underneath it.”

3a, 3b – Fish Paintings:  I tend to draw my fish kind of ambiguous, kind of generic. So in the eye of the beholder, viewers can see this as a sunfish, as a bream: it could be bunches of different fishes.

4a, 4b – Most Recent:
The lack of paintings in Trione’s home during my visit didn’t reflect artistic inactivity. Two went out the door days earlier: the commissioned Walleye Pike, and a dolphin accompanied by five small fish. It had sold at auction the night before, at a local school fundraiser. [Walleye Pike] “Some of Bonnie’s Minnesota relatives visited last week. About two months ago, one of them had commissioned me to paint a walleye pike. I had never seen one, but I was able to get a plastic three-dimensional model that I could feel to get the details. When they saw it, they said, ‘wow, that’s a good-looking walleye pike!’” he explains. “Flounder come naturally. Mullet. But periodically I have to learn to paint a new fish, one that I’m not familiar with.”

Mullet is something that I saw and felt as a kid. I remember the shape of the head, the way they swim. I’ve learned how many fins they have. I’ve done several paintings called The Eastern Shore Mullet School. All have sold.

Foley & Fairhope School Visits (02a-02g) - Ms. Watson’s 1st grade class @ Foley Elementary and Judy Humphrey ? grade Fairhope Elementary art class, with Trione’s “touchable art.” At Foley Elementary, they started about three months ago, sending students home with information about me. Each child had to pay $3 to do art with Mr. Ricky. I usually get $300 for a whole day at the school. On days where they take in more, the balance goes to school to buy supplies. At Spanish Fort Elementary last week, my average day was seven classes. There were two days where I had eight. Students in kindergarten through third grade had 30-minute classes; fourth and fifth graders got 40-minutes. With those younger students, in order for me to tell my story; talk about my talking watch; they want to see what my eye look like; they ask questions, and then we do the art. It's like crunch time. We're working fast. There are students waiting to come in while we're getting them out. We really stayed busy. A lot of the third graders said, Mr. Ricky, the last time you were here I was in the first grade. And some of them had been at other schools and transferred in. Two of them said Mr. Ricky, I saw you at Loxley Elementary last year.” Hallway Paintings 02b = Trione’s work displayed in a hallway, adjacent to the school library’s Ricky Trione Reading Room, where fishes, red fishes, jellyfish, shrimp, and other Trione originals are permanently displayed.
Adrian Hoff
Freelance Photographer and Writer
Mobile, AL