Total Pageviews

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Evolution of An Artist, Post-Stroke

In June, The Stroke Survivors Tattler will be featuring artists who are also stroke survivors. I was asked by the editor to contribute an article about Bob and his artwork. Here it is:

One of Bob's cartoons, pre-stroke
Since childhood, Bob wanted to be an artist. He used to tell the story about when he was 6-7 years old and saw the "Draw Winky" advertisement for an art school in the back of a magazine. He drew Winky (a deer) and showed his mother his handiwork. His mother thought he had traced it. She even held it up against the window to see if he did.

His dream was to go to art school. A dream that kept getting put off because of finances and responsibilities, including a diasterous early marriage that ended in divorce. Soon after the divorce, at the age of 32, he finally fulfilled his dream and, two years later, graduated with a degree in Commercial Art/Graphic Design.
Bob's Pen & Ink Pointillism

He loved working with pointillism, a drawing technique using little dots. He loved cartooning.

Mona Lisa's Cat
Bob and I met while he was going to college and we began dating shortly after his graduation. He told me he wanted to be a cartoonist. He loved "The Far Side" and had an idea for a single panel off-beat cartoon sort of like that. I encouraged him to give it a try and he did put together a portfolio of cartoons and sent them off to the syndicates. We also worked together on a children's book: me writing the text and him illustrating.

He made most of his money drawing company logos and t-shirt designs. He did a lot of freelance work including work for Florida Blood Services and Taco Bell.

Page from our children's book
In 2003, he suffered his first stroke, which was minor but did leave him with right hand coordination problems. He was right -handed. He did not draw again after that. He didn't think he would be good enough. He was always a perfectionist.

In 2010, he suffered a second, and much more severe, stroke which left his right hand/arm completely paralyzed, his right leg partially paralyzed and totally blind in the left eye and with vision problems in the right eye, severe aphasia and a feeding tube. He is now, for all intents and purposes, mostly bedbound though he can transfer into a wheelchair with the aid of a slideboard and walk with assistance at the parallel bars.  After four weeks in Acute Rehab, the hospital wanted him sent to a nursing home. I brought him home instead.

Early post-stroke drawing.
While in Rehab, the occupational therapist tried to coax Bob into drawing again. But he refused. Once, the OT took a sheet of paper and proceeded to draw a picture of a flower. It was a terrible drawing, it looked like something a 5-year-old might draw. She showed it to Bob. She then asked Bob to draw her a flower and told him she knew he could draw a better flower than the one she had. He took the pencil in his left hand and, with a sly smirk on his face, drew an exact replica of the flower the OT had drawn.
Attempt to draw a bat.

It was then I knew there was hope.

Though when I coaxed him to draw, he still refused.

The next Christmas, when my parents asked what they could buy for Bob, I told them to buy him a professional artist sketchbook and graphic pencils. I thought, perhaps, if he had some good quality professional supplies it might incite him to draw again.

First complete drawing post-stroke.
He called it Aphasia Mind.
At first, he only took the pencil in his left hand and wrote his name over and over in the sketchbook. I told him the sketchbook was for drawing, not practicing his signature. He told me, "I'm progressing."

And progress he did. His first drawings were very sketchy and simple and strange. His only attempt to draw something realistic was a bat which he gave up on before completion.

He turned then to drawing haunting and surrealistic landscapes which had an other-worldly quality, such as the one he called "Obstacles".

His artwork continued to evolve. Getting more and more detailed.
Portrait of Diane

Two things have just amazed me. The first is that being right-handed and now using his left hand, his handwriting is horribly shaky.  Yet, he can draw such fine lines, steady details, perfect shading.

The second thing that amazes me is how everyone sees something different in his drawings. And how people actually search the drawings for hidden symbols and messages and objects. Some of his drawings are strangely mesmerizing and I find people staring at them, transfixed, in a bit of a state of awe.

He is still a perfectionist when he draws, often working on a project for weeks and, then, simply tossing it out if he deems it "not good". When he is finished with a work, he indicates to me how he wants it cropped and/or centered when I scan his drawing into the computer. He also comes up with the titles for his drawings.

It can take him two to three months to complete a drawing. He works mostly in the mornings, while I do chores around the house or blog.

Brain Block
He draws in bed, with a sketchbook clipped to a clipboard and propped on his knee.  This is no small feat as the sketchbook will wobble under the weight of his pencil and he cannot move his other hand to steady it. He is always very relaxed and content when he draws. He starts drawing in the middle of the page, completely shades and finishes that little section and then works outward, one little bit at a time. He never uses an eraser. If he makes a mistake, he'll trash the whole thing, or he'll work around the "mistake" and incorporate it into the drawing.

This is very different from the way he used to work, which was a meticulously planning out a project before starting it: he used angled rulers, graph paper, a light table and he completely mapped out the proportions then sketched an outline before filling in the details.

Brain Rewired
As Bob cannot communicate well, I do wonder what his artwork means and if they are brief glimpses into the mind of an aphasic artist. I do think he's trying to communicate through his pictures, trying to tell me something. His latest works seem to be saying that "everything is connected", at least everything in the pictures, indeed, are connected...

Or maybe he's just trying to tell me that he is still in there. Even though his brain is damaged and his body crippled and he cannot speak very well. He's still in there. He's still the man, the artist, I met and married and deeply love.

For that, I am glad.


oc1dean said...

Diane, check out my latest post

Anonymous said...

Great story. I have always been amazed and in aw of his drawings that you have posted. I sincerely hope he continues drawing. Thanks for sharing.

Lots of hugs and prayers, Dan

J.L. Murphey said...

Inspiring! His artwork is now more introspective and yes, he is trying to communicate.

I haven't been brave enough to try drawing left handed. A lot of it has to do with the perfectionist's attitude you mentioned.

I see a nonfiction post stroke book in your future. You writing and him drawing again.

Rebecca Dutton said...

I love pointillism too. Since I grew up in Chicago I had the good fortune to see Georges Seurat's Sunday Afternoon many times at the Art Institute of Chicago. Bob's pen and ink drawing is amazing.

Barb Polan said...

I think of myself as an artist: when I'm writing, I am like Bob, perfectly content and absorbed. All sense of time vanishes and I am blissful. I hope that's where Bob is.

Jenn said...

Oh Diane! Your article is grand! Well done. Well done, indeed! Naturally I had a hearty laugh at Mona Lisa's cat! I'm so glad you wrote! Bob is fascinating!

SSTattler said...

I bought a reproduction of pictures by "M.C. Escher - Drawing Hands" years ago - it shows 2D & 3D simultaneously - weird but beautiful. Bob's drawing is 3D e.g. "Obstacles" (and all his drawing)! Bob, keep drawing and it will get better and better ...