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This is my favorite painting. It is titled After the Storm. It did not load to a resolution that is clean and sharp, but it is one of my works I did when the feeling in my fingertips began to return. I certainly had been through a storm in life. First I grew up in a home where verbal and physical abuse was the norm, not the exception. Then I started working in occupations that involved toxic chemicals and at times I was in dangerous construction jobs. As if that were not enough, my ancestors had a history of extreme blood pressure. That medical issue can and did trigger strokes in my mid-twenties and into my thirties that caused me to become very familiar with doctors and specialists.

It seemed like I was always watching other guys my age working in cherry jobs, making money and establishing careers while I struggled to find finances to buy meds for heart and blood pressure and keep the utilities on and the rent paid. I developed an affinity for people with chronic illnesses. I soon found that I could make a difference for at least one person at a time if I was a caregiver for people who were struggling. I could understand them, even if I did not have the same problem, I knew a lot of the frustrations and the fears that dog the people who are beat down by disease or disability. I could relate.

In the world where success is measured in money and cars and home value, I was beginning to learn real success is measured by a different rule. Real success was measured in my new lifestyle by whether I could help people understand how to cope with the issues they had in health or disabilities. In the late 80’s I was working for a well-driller in the North Central areas of New Mexico. On the job, I was exposed to powerful plastic solvent cement. I had already had several episodes with heart and blood pressure problems, but nothing compared to or prepared me for what I was about to experience.

I had been working on a community water system in a small mountain top village. Crawling back and forth in narrow and low ceiling tunnels running from access holes or manholes. I had a fan moving air through my work area, but it air locked at some point during the fateful day. I was working at a steady pace, cutting and fitting plastic water pipe and cementing it together with PVC solvent cement.At some point, I passed out, and I woke up almost seven full days later in an ICU in UNM Hospital in Albuquerque. I was there for quite some time and after extensive tests, it was decided by doctors that I had been overcome by the solvent fumes and that I was now doomed to be partially paralyzed.

Nutritionists taught me what to eat and how to use my diet to cleanse my body of toxins, and I also was sent to the Therapists to try and restore function and feeling in my hands and feet and legs and arms. To this day, my right side is weaker than my left, and when you consider that I am right handed and that was once my strong side, it can give you some idea of the way I had come down.

On one particular morning, the therapists came into the room with a sketch pad and a handful of pencils. She laid them on the table in front of me and told me to try drawing. I could restore some of my lost eye-hand coordination. I was very interested in giving it a try. I had started sketching when I was just six years old. Over the years, it had become my escape and my relaxer, my way of being able to meditate and think through issues and problems I might be dealing with. My hands and fingers were doing the sketch and my mind was processing the events and things I needed to deal with. Needless to say, first attempts are not too good when nerves are non-responsive and my hand felt like a mitten was on it preventing feeling. I was frustrated, but I kept at it. I had once turned out prize-winning artwork in school and competitions, and now it was a struggle to do anything. I also tried my hand at playing musical instruments again. Didn’t  do so well there. But in the area of art, I had little breakthroughs that were huge for me. I was eventually showing in galleries and in various shows and I was even able to make some money which helped with medical bills.

It did not take long for me to see the effect art therapy had on patients. I introduced old men who had been rough and tough to a world of sketching and painting and at first they might balk at the idea, soon they were deeply involved in trying new techniques and mediums. In my own case, I realized I could track my recovery by how my artwork was progressing. And as it worked for me, I found it particularly useful for stroke and brain injury victims. I could write a long discussion about how to set up an easel and or painting area, but it is better to try it first with your patient. It is actually something you can do together if you like to do artwork yourself. Try something small and easy at first. Biting off too big a task will cause frustration and feelings of failure for either you or your patient. Many times what I considered my simpler work was the pieces that sold for the most money in shows or galleries.

My wife is wheelchair bound and disabled due to a motorcycle accident. She did not quit on life at age seventeen laying in bed with lower body paralyzed but made up her mind to do something positive with her life. She went to college and earned a degree in Education with three endorsements. She then spent the majority of her career teaching school children. One of her favorite classes to teach is art.

I watched her take a special needs group of boys who were all diagnosed with ADD or ADHD and teach them how to work in clay.  Many of the boys in that group had never sat still for more than a few minutes their entire life. She had them all quiet and focused and doing a piece of sculpture for had peace among 32 boys for over three hours. The parents considered her a miracle worker.

It is not difficult to understand how it could be that those boys were so compliant. Artwork demands most of the brain function to be available. The combination of the various tasks helps the memory and cognitive and analytical and emotions to all work together to produce an image or play music or make a piece of art. It is very good therapy for people who have had a stroke. It can be frustrating, however, so it needs to be slowly introduced at a steady and slow pace at first until a balance is achieved. Sorry, I wish I had words that would describe this adequately, but at the point the artist begins to feel the artwork coming alive under the fingers, there is no need anymore to encourage the situation. At some point, it begins to draw a person in. At least that is what it does for me.

I have had several phases of fighting for life after severe bouts with strokes and heart failure, and also had to deal with more than one chemical poisoning. Artwork gave me a way to rehab my fingers and restore that eye-hand coordination that is so essential to working in wood and construction.

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The eagle was drawn more than once and painted more than once. Each time I produced a new piece, I would compare the latest with the one before, to see how my hands were improving. Above was the last painting, below is the last drawing.

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I tried to go out to actual locations and draw, but found our high country is seldom warm enough for my fingers to work freely. Not wanting to brave early spring days or midsummer heat, I resorted to cameras and the photos could be hung on my sketch board and used to inspire my drawing. It is not necessary to get an expensive camera or look for good shots out in the area where you live. If you or your patient is just getting started, magazine photos give great choices for inspiring drawing and painting. It is not about achieving perfection right away, but it is about achieving peace and joy and having a non-threatening way to revive nerves and muscles that would otherwise atrophy. It is one of my personal great joys in life, and I can often unwind and let off a lot of frustration, disappointment, and hurt while drawing and painting. It certainly is wonderful that my wife is as avid an artist as I am. We sometimes consider doing projects side by side. She is also a musician. So she can and does play guitar and piano and sing. That is a fun little way to de-stress as well.

I wanted to post a few more pieces here and give you an idea of how they were inspired so it might trigger your own creative juices flowing.

For those people who are in the battle for a loved one’s life, I realize that just like me, you might not have a lot of time. The beauty of artwork is that you can start a piece and just give it a stroke here and there and it will wait for you. Flexible timing is key. Some of my most intricate works are the pieces I did while sitting with my wife in a hospital room day after day. I could be doing something while the staff took care of her, which made me feel like I was doing something and also gave her reassurance that I loved her enough to sit with her and stay with her.

So here goes my gallery string,

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The red fox is a pen and ink drawing, felt tip and drafting pens were used, and the model was sitting at the end of a field and posed for my camera one winter day when I was a teenager. I drew his picture more than 30 years later.

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The clipper ship above was a pen and ink and took months to draw between taking care of my close friend. It took hours of painstaking detailing to render the ship. I did it because the designer of the ship was Captain Robert Waterman with John Griffith Naval architect putting the ideas down on paper to build the ship. This one, The Sea Witch set sailing records that still stand today. I was amazed that ships could be built that sailed faster than 60 miles per hour and could put more canvas in the air than what the area of a football field was in size. I did my very best to do the ship justice as it was a piece of art as well. Clipper ships were built almost as fine furniture.

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The windmill is another painting that took months to finish. I was taking care of a group of men in rehab who were kicking drugs. Their issues would fill my day and left me with little free time. I learned during this time that acrylics and water colors were much easier to break out and use than oils as there was a much less demanding method with acrylics and water colors. Colored pencils and pen and ink were also very easy to use as they too did not require so much setup time.

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Lefty and lightfoot of course, need no explanation as what inspired the drawing. A photo was shot for a magazine and I could not resist. New Mexico has a healthy movie industry tied to Hollywood, so I was able to make some use of photos of famous actors too. Try to guess which Carradine brother this is next!

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The wolf was photographed in the Yellowstone park and the little raccoon kit was just a couple weeks old and bathing in my mother’s watering can on the family farm when I photographed him and  drew his picture. Several of these drawings were produced when my mother needed a caregiver while she was dealing with a heart failure.

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All of these drawings were done in small snatches of minutes taken between feeding, changing beds, cooking meals and transporting patients. Sometimes I had good drawing pads and other times I used copy paper from a machine in a hospital. They were all therapy for me and many made me some spending money used to help cover expenses.

The masked bandit below says goodbye and that’s all for now!

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Just remember, this is not about being a perfect artist at the first attempt. This is about expression and unwinding and dealing with stress and having some way to feel that you are still able to do something from your heart other than changing beds and cooking and dispensing meds.

Enjoy.

Written by David Waterman
I am a spousal caregiver. I have had a lot of serious accidents in dangerous construction jobs. My recovery has not always been smooth but I did learn how my wife feels when she is bed bound for long periods. With similar experiences in our past I have a better understanding of what she needs to be comfortable. I also spent years involved in Christian ministry and the principles of Christianity apply so well to this life I lead now and give much needed stability when all other things are so often in the air.

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3 Comments

  1. Liz Imler, It is my personal therapy and my venting program and wind down exercise. I use the same care in construction work too. When everything in caregiving or recovery is out of control, this is one thing I can do to express myself.
    David

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  2. Just WONDERFUL!

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  3. David – I am in absolute awe. Your art is absolutely breathtaking! So much detail.

    Reply

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