Visual Art

Dallas-based Artist Desmond Blair Paints Without Hands

Desmond Blair didn't put "born without hands" on his résumé back in 2010. On paper, he met the qualifications for the jobs he applied for after earning his degrees in Art and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas. But people acted strange when he showed up to job interviews. It was socially awkward. Blair figured that these prospective employers didn’t believe he was physically capable of doing the work. He decided to shoot video of him painting. When things got awkward in interviews, he pulled out his phone and played the video.

Blair was born without fully developed hands and is missing fingers. But he learned to type in grade school and later became interested in drawing and a career in animation. Five years ago, those awkward moments in job interviews helped him find his true path as a painter.

“I would get these weird looks when I went into job interviews,” Blair says. “I know that look. I’ve seen it my entire life. Every time I go into a new environment it’s like they’re waiting to see if I can manage myself.” Blair isn’t sure if his video ultimately led to his employment as a project manager in an IT department, but it did make him refocus on painting. He had been working with 3-D animation software, but having something physical to show for his work made all the difference.

Leading a brush with his left arm and supporting it with his right, Blair creates oil paintings with impressive detail. He focuses on portraits of people he knows and celebrities who inspire him. He is currently working on a large portrait of Rihanna. He has also completed paintings of the late actor Paul Walker, rapper André 3000 and the late singer and actress Aaliyah.

Back in 2013, Blair was featured on a local news broadcast. “Whoever posted the video for the story online picked the worst still from the video as a display image,” Blair says. People took the image and created cruel memes that floated all over the Internet. “I’m used to people talking about me like that,” he continues. “It’s happened to me all my life. But it’s kind of frustrating when you are trying to do something positive.”

Blair pushed forward and kept focusing on painting. A couple years later, an art gallery brought his work to the attention of a journalist who recognized him from the memes and had no idea he was from Dallas. This ultimately worked in Blair’s favor, as he was featured on another local news broadcast in August. The video appeared online and went viral within a couple weeks. Blair started receiving many commissions.

By October, people like Chris Brown and Floyd Mayweather Jr. were posting the video on their social media accounts. Now he has had commissions from people as far away as Japan. He just returned from California, where he completed a project for Black History Month. He can’t talk about it yet, but it will definitely give him even more exposure.

Blair is able to complete two or three paintings a month. But his portrait of Rihanna is much larger and he has been working on it for three weeks. She has long hair in the image and it is giving him a chance to sharpen his attention to detail even further. He enjoys painting people realistically, but focuses more on light and shadow than his subjects. His interest in animation still affects the look of his paintings and also his future plans.

Blair has painted many portraits, studied color schemes and anatomy to improve his art, and participated in group shows. But now he is planning to have his first solo show next year, which will be a series of portraits that will tell a story, similar to a comic book. He has also been writing a book that will correspond with the exhibit, a batch of essays about lessons he has learned.

He has a way of turning problems into opportunities. “My mom used to tell me there is no point in wasting your energy being mad,” Blair says. “You got 10 minutes to be upset. But if you waste more than 10 minutes you’ll miss the opportunity in whatever challenge you’re facing.”

This outlook has served him well. Instead of gathering negative energy or projecting it onto others, he channels it into something positive or useful. “Some people disable themselves when they hit a challenge,” Blair says. “They allow it to frustrate them so much that they don’t grow or find the opportunity in it.”

Blair doesn’t like the word disabled; he prefers to be called different. “If I was disabled I wouldn’t be painting or doing all these other things,” he says. Indeed, he has been busier than most people lately and this is just the beginning. “For me this has been like lifting weights,” he says. “I’ve been practicing and now it’s time to step in the ring.”
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Jeremy Hallock