Touched by Art

Ricky Trione wears an apron with the inspirational verse, “Walk by faith, not by sight.” The same applies to his painting. Trione is blind. However, his fingers are so perceptive, they enable him to paint what he can no longer behold: dolphins, mullet, shrimp and jubilee scenes springing from his childhood memories.

Born in Fairhope in 1957, Trione enjoyed normal vision for much of his life. His innate artistic abilities emerged in youth. He preferred drawing to painting, and frequently spent time alone in his room rendering in pen and ink. But he was no homebody.  “I grew up close to the Bay in Daphne. My brother, sister and I spent days fishing and crabbing on the May Day Park pier.”

While serving in the Air Force, Trione augmented his military pay by making wedding invitations and greeting cards and selling his highly detailed drawings at arts and crafts fairs. “I would lightly sketch each with a pencil until I had the shapes down. Then I would come back in with a quill pen dipped in India ink, ” he explains, adding that he routinely devoted 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 was once sighted, because I remember colors, ” he says. “I love color. But I took it for granted: I didn’t really learn much about the use of color until after I was blind.”  Trione lost sight in his left eye in 1993 when the wheels of a passing truck slung an object through the open window of his military vehicle. “It was quite cumbersome trying to do things with one eye, ” he recalls. “I had to learn to drive a car again, and it took over a year to get to where drawing felt natural.”

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“This is the first painting that I did with Elmer’s glue. It received a lot of compliments, and that really encouraged me. It’s a childhood memory of my dad throwing a cast net. That’s me with him. I was a little fellow, ” explains Trione. “After drawing with the glue, I came back with a little bit of brown on my finger, and on a little tiny brush or Q-tip. I made squiggly lines in the water with the glue. I wanted to be able to feel the waves and the cast net. I did one more with glue before I was introduced to the thicker puffy fabric paint. I can feel it better.” 

In ’95 Trione accepted medical retirement. He, his wife, Bonnie, and their children returned 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 in counseling. He then joined the Alabama Department of Rehabilitation as a vocational rehabilitation counselor. “I did home visits. Even with only one eye, I was able to drive myself, ” Trione says. “Then I had my second accident in 2000.”

Trione had pulled off the road to check his engine when the tread separated from a tire of a passing semitruck and struck him in the face. He awoke in a hospital, totally blind. “The first five years, I was learning to be blind, ” he says. “To use a cane and read braille, learning software to have a screen reader on my computer and to navigate by listening.” He kept working as a counselor for five more years, despite having to cope with more than blindness. “I was hit in the head, so I had seizures until about 2010. Thank goodness I haven’t had one in a while.”

A New Vision for Art

Later, when a local newspaper profiled Trione and referred to his artistry in the past tense, as though he would never create again, it caught the attention of an old friend, Vicky Cook. “She said, ‘Ricky, you could still draw. You just need to learn to use  texture, and I’ll help you.”

Cook introduced him to the Kennedy Center’s Very Special Arts (VSA) program. It encourages people with disabilities to pursue the arts. At her suggestion, Trione began sketching shapes with Elmer’s glue instead of a pencil. “I thought, gosh, I could draw a fish with it. When it was dry, I could feel all of the lines and then finger paint it, ” he says. “Back then, somebody had to guide me on the painting. But that method gave me confidence.”

Fabric paint soon replaced the glue. Trione quickly learned to put it down by touch, while stroking it so lightly that it didn’t smear. In doing so, he developed a unique, recognizable style. “Now I tell the children I teach that art is not about being perfect; it’s about expressing yourself. I say, ‘My shrimp might not look like anybody else’s, but when somebody sees that shrimp, they’re going to know that it was done by Ricky Trione.’”

Trione’s palette generally includes only white and primary colors, which he places around a paper plate palette in rainbow order, like numbers on a clock face, with white in the center.

The Value of a Mentor

Trione has no formal training, although he did have an incredible role model, his uncle, artist Ronald Trione, who had broken his neck when diving off the Daphne pier at age 17. “As a little boy I’d sit and watch my uncle paint. He was a talented artist before the accident made him a quadriplegic, ” Trione recalls. “He could only move his head, but his mother gave him a special mouthpiece with a stick attached. She taped pencils and brushes to it. In the late ’50s he took a correspondence course through American Famous Artists’ School.”

The school paired legendary illustrator and painter Norman Rockwell with the elder Trione. His mother helped him do the assignments, then mailed them back to the school. Each was returned with Rockwell’s handwritten notes of reassurance and advice for improving various aspects of the work. “Rockwell’s encouragement led my uncle to do portraiture. He was commissioned to paint Gov. Albert Brewer’s official portrait in the late ’60s. I think it still hangs in the state Capitol, ” Trione says. “I was inspired by how he overcame obstacles and never gave up. He always had a smile and a positive attitude.”

That sounds like another chronically pleasant man I know who’s also rather inspiring in his efforts to overcome physical challenges. The younger Trione is also passionate about giving back to his community. He is an active board member at several local nonprofits, and he keeps busy traveling to area schools, educating, entertaining and boosting the spirits of his art students. Every summer, he hosts art camps, including one in Prichard. Next March, he will make an address at the National Art Educators Association’s annual national convention – for the second time. When he is not volunteering, Trione paints — creating bright, colorful, happy art that looks like his alone.

text and photos by Adrian Hoff

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