In Darkness, Colors Shine Bright for South Graduate
Posted on April 14, 2017
Ricky Trione stands before a class of teachers-in-training at his alma mater, the University of South Alabama, showing them some of the things he has learned. The lesson moves some of them to tears. Occasionally, their reaction can move him to tears, too.
Trione learned how to make vivid, emotionally charged paintings after he became blind. He learned how to “see” the painting with his fingers. And, from a third-grade girl, he learned how to remember the colors in the rainbow.
He learned to regain his independence. He has adjusted to a set of abilities that’s certainly different, although not necessarily diminished. He shops at a neighborhood grocery store and strolls around his hometown of Fairhope by himself, with the aid of his white cane and a lot of clever talking phone apps that read food labels and even identify colors.
His hearing has stepped up to cover many functions that his sight once handled. He identifies people by their speech instead of their appearance, never forgets a voice, and can overhear conversations about himself from a lot farther away than the speakers realize, often to his amusement. He paints largely from memories of the sea creatures, coastal scenes and blue-green water colors that he loved growing up on Mobile Bay. When asked to paint an object that’s less familiar, he picks it up (or, with larger objects, picks up a small statue or other representation of it) and learns its shape and contours by feel.
Maybe most surprising of all, he learned to accept and even embrace what seems to be outrageously unfair luck: two separate accidents in 1993 and 2000 that stole the sight in first his left eye, then his right. “I have a lot of joy in my life,” he said. “I am very content.”
For more than a decade, Dr. Paige Vitulli, associate professor in the USA Department of Leadership and Teacher Education, has brought Trione to her Visual Arts for Young Children classes, both in Mobile and at the Baldwin County campus. The students are on track for dual certification in elementary education and special education.
Trione himself is a graduate of the college. He earned his master’s degree in counseling from the College of Education in 1997, more than a decade after receiving his undergrad in communications at South and following service in the Army.
His very life demonstrates the potential of art in the classroom. If a blind man can create boldly colored, vibrant paintings, and sit on the floor of a classroom teaching kindergarteners how to do the same, then teachers can use art to communicate with almost anyone.
Even if teachers don’t specifically teach special-education classes, they quickly learn that any class requires “special education.” “We say to them the reality is, you will all be teaching students with diverse needs and special needs,” Vitulli said.
Trione has loved art since childhood. Even during his Army career, he entered art shows with his pen and ink drawings — always black and white, always highly technical. “I was a real perfectionist,” he said. Only after his blindness did he brighten his art with colors and emotions and let his rigid lines relax into flowing shapes.
When he lost his sight, he thought he’d lost art, too. Then an art buddy from grade school days, Vicky Cook, taught him to sketch shapes with Elmer’s glue. Once it dried, he could feel the texture and use it as a guide for adding colors, usually with his fingers. He puts his paints on a paper plate using a clock method: red at 12 o’clock, yellow at 3, blue at 6, and white in the middle. He tears the plate slightly at 12 so he can keep the plate oriented.
An art camp for kids a decade ago brought a further revelation. He confessed that he didn’t know the order of colors in a rainbow. A third-grade girl took it upon herself to teach him. “Just remember a man’s name: Roy G. Biv,” she said. “Roy is red, orange, yellow; that’s the top of the rainbow. G is green for the middle. And Biv is blue, indigo and violet. That’s the bottom. The warm colors rise just like heat rises, so Roy is the warm colors, and Biv is the cool colors.”
On his paper plate, he can mix red and yellow at 2 o’clock to get orange. Mixing yellow and blue at 5 o’clock creates green. Blending blue and red at 9 o’clock yields violet. If he mixes that violet with more blue at 8 o’clock, he gets indigo. And he can paint a rainbow.
Trione regularly visiting schools to teach art, especially in the elementary grades. He travels throughout Alabama and even into Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana. His white apron, painted by an art teacher friend, says “Mr. Ricky” at the top. Across the bottom are words from his favorite Bible verse, 2 Corinthians 5:7: “Walk by faith, not by sight.”
Sometimes, teachers give him a mystery object to draw. He’ll take it in his hands and sit on the floor with the children. Kids bond instinctively with this gentle, encouraging man. “You can tell they’re having a hard time not giving the secret away,” Trione said. “I’ll feel it, and then I’ll show them how I draw by feeling.
“Sometimes with kindergarteners, they’ll be leaning over my shoulder. There was one little boy that was leaning over my shoulder, and he was whispering the whole time, ‘You’re doing good, Mr. Ricky. You’re doing really good.’”
Indeed he is.
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