By SUE WEBBER
Ken Dobratz of Bloomington lost 95 percent of his sight almost 15 years ago, and it happened very quickly.
“It started in one eye,” he said. “There was something wrong with my eye when I watched TV. By the end of the week, I couldn’t see out of it. The doctor said the optic nerve was dead. My other eye was fine.”
His mother, brother and sister had each lost eyesight in one eye, so it wasn’t a total shock to Dobratz. “It might be hereditary; no one knows,” he said.
“The doctor said there was almost no chance of something happening to the other eye,” he said. “Two days later, it started in the other eye.”
His vision now is 20/1000 in the bad eye and 20/700 in his good eye. “Anything beyond 4 or 5 feet away from me turns into a ghost,” Dobratz said. “I wear real powerful glasses.”
Dobratz worked in the graphic arts and printing sales industries until he retired, and has been painting since he was 28. Now 72, the Vietnam veteran was ready to end his life when blindness hit, according to his wife, Ellyn.
“When I lost my sight, we moved to an apartment,” Dobratz said. “For a couple of years, I had very bad depression. I really crawled into a rabbit hole. But then I went to the VA and it was unbelievable. I met an awesome psychologist there. The VA helped pull me out. I worked with them for six months.”
“The psychologist asked me when I was going to start painting. I said, ‘I’m blind.’ He said, ‘So? You can try. Who knows what will happen? I want you to think about it.’
“So I bought an easel and some canvases, and I started,” Dobratz said. “I thought it was going to be hard. But I found that I could paint pretty darn good.”
“The Minneapolis Veterans Health Care System mental health department saved his life,” Ellyn said. “With their care, he was able to return to his hobby of painting. The VISOR (Visual Impairment Services Outpatient Rehabilitation) program provided him with many magnifiers and other special equipment. He has since entered the Creative Arts contest at the VA and has taken first place three years in a row.”
After losing most of his sight, Dobratz said, he had to convert from oil painting to using acrylics. “Acrylics are totally different from oils,” he said. “Oils blend automatically; oils are so easy.”
He took three lessons, and found he really enjoyed painting with acrylics. “It took me 4 ½ years to learn how to do it correctly,” he said.
A self-described “extreme introvert,” Dobratz said he spends six hours painting each day. “I talk to no one, and I’m quite at ease,” he said.
However, he credits his wife for her support during this difficult time. “My wife and I are tight as can be,” he said. “My wife and I are joined at the hip.”
Dobratz has sold a couple of his paintings and estimates that he’s given away 100, but said he has more than 70 of them still at his home.
“I had always painted buildings, or mountains with a reflection from the water,” he said. “I never painted animals. Now I want to paint animals and birds. I love birds.”
He gets photographs from the library of things he would like to paint.
“I’m one to have goals,” he said. “I always have a plan. I make a plan in my head before I paint something and then I follow that.”
If he works quickly, he said he can finish a painting in two weeks, though one painting generally takes three weeks to complete. Portraits of his wife and daughter took four months each to finish. “I’m not going to do a lot of those,” he said.
A native of the Twin Cities, Dobratz spent a year in a trade school before joining his brother-in-law in the printing business. He and his wife have lived in Bloomington for 35 years.
He is no stranger to physical pain. During the four years he served in the Navy during Vietnam, Dobratz said, “I broke my neck on Pearl Harbor and didn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t turn my neck left and right.”
Two years after he got out of the service, he had x-rays at the VA that showed his clavicle was shattered. In 2016, Dobratz finally had neck surgery that lasted 7 ½ hours.
Now, Dobratz said, “I love painting. It’s what I do.” An article he wrote about his painting was printed in the spring 2017 newsletter from the Chicago VA Medical Center.
Dobratz and his wife have four children and 10 grandchildren.