After twenty years of painting by hand, Ronald Gramling’s work took a profound turn in 2005 when cumulative trauma injuries to his arms forced him to paint entirely with his feet. Years of artistic experimentation followed. A paintbrush between the toes felt too limiting. Hopping around on one leg while swirling paint around with the other was too demanding on his body. Gramling’s defining moment came a few years into the foot painting journey by chance, when he noticed some toe prints haphazardly left behind on the canvas.
He now purposely fills his paintings full of those toe prints, usually thousands of them on a single piece.
Inside the studio a canvas lies flat on the floor as Gramling studies it. Wearing a sock oozing with paint, Gramling hovers above the canvas seeking the precise spot to drop his toe and twist his foot. Left behind is a crescent shaped dab of paint that pulses with energy as it feeds off the vibrantly colored toe prints next to it. He continues, mostly sitting and sometimes standing, balancing on top of the painting in an intricate dance almost akin to ballet.
Socks crusted with paint are scattered in colorful mounds around the artist. “At the beginning I was going through socks at a frantic pace. Over time I realized I could get certain effects by reusing old socks—a new sock will usually show a toe mark and an old one with layers of dried paint can provide the details. Some of my favorite ones are from a decade ago… I do wash them,” Gramling reminisces as he laughs. It’s been over a dozen years of utilizing his feet to create art.
In the beginning he says he overdid it with his feet thinking he could match the pace he painted at with his hands. Gramling would spend entire days walking, jumping, twisting and balancing on top of the canvas—all while avoiding wet paint and often painting with the subject matter upside down so it could be filmed. “I had knots in my feet and constant cramps, it stopped me from painting for about a year,” says Gramling. “Little did I know it at the time, but it was the best thing for me. It allowed me to imagine painting in my mind. Over and over I searched for a new way of seeing the world, taking vacations inside my brain,” Gramling recalls. The results, he hopes, are compositions that paradoxically appear simple at first yet are conceptually complex.
Since it’s a physically and mentally demanding way of making art, finding smooth maneuvers is critical. After nine years of refining the process, Gramling felt he had finally found the answer. He now sits on a stool and lets his right foot dangle over the canvas before applying paint, standing only occasionally. This has worked well and Gramling feels he’s in a good artistic rhythm. “The paintings are in a nice flow with the cosmos,” he muses.
His works have transformed from representational landscapes that he used to do by hand into abstract visionary works tackling the unknown, mysterious dimensions Gramling imagines surrounding us. He firmly believes that the universe kept nudging him toward this, opening his mind to new ideas and launching him into uncharted territory. “I constantly think about the invisible space between objects and try to let my imagination run wild,” says Gramling. He looks over his shoulder, “What is right there within that three foot area?… A portal?… A million years? … Mysterious dimensions? I find it fascinating to daydream. I don’t believe I’d have arrived at this way of thinking without circumstances pushing me to, and I’m grateful for that.”
The making of every foot painting has been captured on film, documenting how an artist adapts to overcome challenging obstacles. The process has gradually revealed that limitations can be gifts in that they push the artist in new and exciting directions.
Gramling’s work has been shown in exhibitions in museums and galleries around the country, including the International Museum of Contemporary Masters of Fine Art Salon International, Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art in San Antonio, TX, the Miller Art Museum in Sturgeon Bay, WI and Horizon Fine Art Gallery in Jackson Hole, WY. In addition, his work is in the collection of Mayo Clinic in Tomah, WI.