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In my work on the various projects in medical settings the making of the art, for me, is a creative act that goes beyond documentation. It is an act of empathic witness and the art itself becomes both agent and advocate of patient autonomy through its unique capacity to engage the subjective sensibilities of the viewer. This goes far beyond Alan Radley’s concept of the asymmetric relation – it is a complete immersion of one subjectivity into the world of many others and the results that are derived from such a conflagration serve only to further blur the boundaries between objective rationalism and the passionate human need to co-exist and share experience.
So, for the last two weeks I have been immersed in the culture, and the sheer dynamism of the Oncology Department at Singleton Hospital in Swansea on the first stage of the Medicine Unmasked project. You can find out more about the project and follow its progress here: medicineunmasked.wordpress.com
I have been shadowing four students who are now two weeks into their five-week ‘oncology apprenticeship’ on the Graduate Entry Medical program at Swansea University College of Medicine. Through shadowing, observing, taking notes, engaging in and recording one-to-one conversations with students and medical professionals, and generally getting the feel, from my artist’s perspective, of the students own experiences in terms of learning and teaching of their placement on the department, I have amassed copious notes, sketches and ideas that will all be used as ‘data’ for when I return to the hospital for a further two weeks in January. During this second stage of the project I will work on a body of artwork, drawings inspired by the process as a whole, but until then, and in the meantime, I will offer a series of posts on this blog that relate to the project both directly, as the experiential nature of the project demands, and more theoretically, as the same experiential nature of the project has encouraged! Needless to say I would appreciate any comments/feedback for the posts on this site as all such content potentially impacts on the process of the research as a whole and is therefore very valuable.
“As an experienced doctor you may have seen twenty patients who, say, have had a heart attack. But this patient has only seen one. It’s their first experience so I think that’s what we have to bear in mind.” (2nd year Student)
I want to begin by expressing my deep appreciation and gratitude to everybody I have been working with; the students themselves, the consultant oncologists that are working alongside, specialist nurses, all nurses on the wards, radiologists, staff in the hospital library, in the cafe, and indeed all hospital staff who I have met and who have been so wonderfully accommodating of someone who – let’s face it – must seem a slightly strange presence in the day-to-day dealings of the hospital as I sit quietly and watchfully with sketch-book or dictaphone in hand! I also owe huge thanks of course to the patients who have been so willing to let me be a witness, alongside the professionals and the medical students, to their experiences during consultation, examination and, in one case, of having a ‘shell’ made of his head in preparation for radiotherapy.
As a small group of two boys and two girls, three in their second year and one in her fourth and final year the students have enthusiastically welcomed me into their world as they tackle the demands both professional and personal of working in the department, and in the process my own learning curve has been close to vertical! As much as I have been learning about the student experience both in the specific terms of the apprenticeship model, and in the more general terms of the GEM course as a whole, I have also had the fantastic opportunity to engage with the theory, and most directly the practice of oncology in a way that has had a profound impact on my perception of myself and my practice as an artist working in medicine. It has confirmed, in a very visceral way, that this is the right place for me to be in terms of how I understand my art and what it can do.
Another January. It is now four years since I began documenting my solitary travels as an artist and I am always grateful to those who choose to travel with me, even if only for a moment. This last year has given me so much room for optimism after the disappointments that ushered it in. The Broadway Drawing School (https://www.facebook.com/BroadwayDrawing) has grown from an idea and aspiration into a small but proudly independent art school, rapidly gaining recognition as offering an education unique in Wales. The classical and traditional merge seamlessy with the ‘now’ in our courses and workshops, and it is all about the practice, and the process, and the creativity, and yes, the ‘craft’, and the laughter, and the joy of being free of the fatuous bureaucracy that seems to pervade elsewhere, in larger, grander institutions. In the meanwhile, in-between the hours and the days that call me a teacher, I continue to reside in the transitory and fleeting moment between the objective and the subjective, which translates into the relation between medical science and art. My work is towards the frailty of humanity as engendered in the individual, the subjectivity of the experience of illness and pain. I am reading Andrzej Szczeklik, Kore: On Sickness, the Sick and the Search for the Soul of medicine. I am reading Solzhenitsyn, The Cancer Ward. My ongoing collaborative project Drawing Women’s Cancer (drawingcancer.wordpress.com) begins its second phase this year.
It is my consciousness of the fragility and tension of what lies ‘in-between’ that gives rise, I believe, to the restlessness that is always a part of me and I am now beginning to accept is a guiding force in more ways than the obvious. I have no need or desire any more to follow my feet, but rather I mean this year to follow my thoughts, my cares…change perhaps the way I see things from the inside, by standing still, rather than by moving on. I think this way I may travel further! So – I am writing, drawing, painting and reading , reading reading. I have two book chapters coming out in 2014, two exhibitions to work towards and a monologue to write. I am teaching. And I am constantly learning. HAPPY NEW YEAR!!
The daffodils are in bloom and the doors of The Broadway Drawing School are now painted daffodil yellow in empathic enthusiasm. The sun is still cold on my back (the short but chill month of my birth still shadows me, even as March marches in) but my suffering soul that at the end of last year almost froze in the icy grip of disappointment, now feels warmer and more recognisable as my own than for a while. Drawings that I had some affiliation to – a guiding hand in – and which covered studio walls in an institution where I once believed I had a future have now come to represent, in my memory, the beginnings of an alternative future; a future that even though poorer, is yet richer way beyond the confines of a bank balance. And I continue to guide…. My hand and my eye follow the creative gesture and the gaze of others who share and believe in the same things that I do….and I feel a debt of gratitude.
I was thinking about yellow; about essences; about portraiture; about this drawing of my son; and I found these words:
“It is a mark of contemporary life that personal identities have become fractured, complex, and splintered, and that they are in a state of constant re-definition. Similarly, contemporary art has also become more heterogeneous and discrete as ‘major themes’ in art are less evident. As a result, two of the most basic questions, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘What is art?’ share the same concern: they both struggle with the challenges of subjectivity”
Steven Holmes, Curator, Subject: Contemporary Portraiture May 14–Aug.14, 2006, Llyman Allyn Art Museum
Another break in my train of thought – another hiatus over the Christmas period that actually owes more to a death than to a birth.
2012 was a great year – it was the year I truly realised how much I am drawn to working across the disciplines in a creative web of theory and practice and how much that relates to why, and how much in itself, I love teaching. It was also the year in which, through my entry with eyes wide open into the world of human suffering and illness, I finally discovered the profundity of my lifetime obsession with identity, and the ‘other’, and the way the two collide. The philosophical and the scientific and the art in 2012 were so very alive, just as were my students who constantly surprised me and gave so much of themselves in their work just because I asked them to. I will miss the ‘life’ classes on the 5th floor because 2012 left me with its head down… my (d)alliance with the Cardiff School of Art came to an end and I was left wondering….
But life, having backflipped yet again, has made its usual recovery and has put me down in Broadway. Broadway in Cardiff that is, at The Broadway Drawing School. I am teaching, drawing, painting, writing and dreaming still, and this time in my own space, in my own time and most especially, on my own terms. Any level of security is now minimal, but strangely, shock brought me to a point where it felt fine to actually shed that blanket and the cold I now feel as a consequence is somehow not as debilitating as the weight of its presence, which became in the end, that of a shroud. I am lighter now.
I am writing – a paper – and I have been thinking….. Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of the ‘mirror stage’ defines the infantile structuring of subjectivity through a fascination for the self-image reflected in a mirror, as an ‘imaginary order’, a deception, a field of images. The age at which this formation of the ego actually occurs disputed is the subject of some dispute but it is immaterial here since it is the ‘alienation’ that Lacan insists is caused by a conflict between our perceived visual experience and our emotional experience of self that is, for me, of interest. The mirror stage defines the understanding of the ‘self’ as essentially a process of objectification that marginalises a more subjective experience of a truer reality of the self in the world, and this resonates with the way that, in terms of human suffering, the very real yet subjective experience of illness is objectified by clinical necessity into a more exclusive focus on the particular disease. The ‘suffering-self’ is therefore again alienated or marginalised in favour of the specific agent of suffering, and in the construction and ‘interrogation’ of the ‘patient-self’, the mirror is one-way.
‘A life lived is what actually happens. A life experienced consists of the images, feelings, sentiments, desires, thoughts and meanings known to the person whose life it is’ Bruner E., M., Anthropology of Experience)
DRAWING THE WORLD OF THE OTHER
I light a candle
for your coming back
Brilliant and frail
in a darkening room
Beautiful it is and damned
not to last, only endure
Almost as fragile
As darkness itself
Amongst all the things in our world there is perhaps nothing more poignant and disquieting than the ephemeral light of a candle as it breaks the darkness of the night. The veil of darkness hides our presupposed ‘truth’ of things, but the luminance of the candle tears the veil from top to bottom and the trembling fragility of the flame affects and alters the way in which we see and therefore the way in which we understand the world. Ordinary things take on new aspects, and drawing by the light of a candle brings into question the all of the ways in which we are accustomed to representing things in what we recognise as the world. The candlelight calls to us then, the candlelight draws us not towards the world but towards ‘our world’.
Our world – a distant, mythical place, full of intangible and ephemeral entities that are derived from our memories, our hopes, our fears and all the things that lie above, below and beyond everyday life. In our world we are separate from the ‘Other’. Our world is never the same as the world of the ‘other’, but it can coincide. Just as we breathe the same air, just as we can see the Other and define the boundaries that separate us from the Other, physically we can break through the boundaries and communicate with language. With language we allow the Other into our world and, in turn, with language we can enter theirs.
Who then is the Other? Being the Other, he or she can never be the same as us. Yet we can only know ourselves, who we are, because of the Other. Our own identity is constructed in terms of the Other. We inhabit our world only in the same way, and ultimately because, the Other inhabits theirs.
In the light of reason and logic. In the light of day we recognise and acknowledge the Other through many forms of language. Through the language of our senses we can see, watch, hear, touch and even smell the Other. We can have a dialogue with the Other and through all of this we can convince ourselves that we and the Other are kin and that we exist together in the same world.
We can draw the Other. We can render the Other recognisable in a portrait, but in the darkness, in silence, we cannot really ‘know’. We cannot be sure, we cannot rely on our senses and here we enter our own world, a world in which we are able to recognise the presence of th Other only by what we can remember, by what we think we know.
Once behind the veil of darkness then we cannot rely on certainty. We cannot know the Other and therefore we cannot know, for sure, ourselves. We might lose ourselves thus within our own world of memories, of yearnings, of feelings of being alone and in not knowing we might fear the unknown that Other has become. We might fear the absence of the Other, an absence that in the dark creates an emptiness that we can only fill with our imaginings. We might begin to feel that we ourselves are the Other.
A lit candle allows us to see through the veil of darkness but we cannot now see the solid logical and recognisable world that we share with the Other that we know. No, the candlelight shows us another world, a fragile and nebulous world of the Other where things are never really what they seem. This is our world, a world where the Other becomes the unknown, where the Other becomes us and we become the Other. This is a world of shadows, a world of ambivalence wherein we recognise ourselves in all that we see and wherein all that seems solid become fragile in the flickering candlelight as it passes in an out of recognisable form. This is our world,
Beautiful it is and damned
not to last, only endure
Almost as fragile
As darkness itself
Its been a while…again… and now more posts. My posting is indeed erratic, as, in a way, has been recent life. Lisbon is a closely held memory, and now I am in Wales. As I write I am watching the rain as, falling soft and gentle, it weaves a fluid veil with silken purity across a field studded with daffodils that obediently bloomed for St David’s day.
I am teaching again…drawing on and through anatomy and philosophy and drawing out long held skills and hopes and fears of students who seem so happy to be in love, as I am, with the touch of graphite on a surface, the stain of charcoal mixed with the natural oils of their skin as they push the dust into the paper. I teach, I research and I wander through the studios, breathing in the smell of the oil and leaving snippets of me in the ring that my coffee mug leaves on their palettes and in the minds of students who ask, who question, who draw on their work in the same way that the artists draws on the heart and the soul.
We drew in space the other day. We wove, with string, a three-dimensional web that stretched across what seemed, while weaving, like a vast emptiness of the studio. Easels and windows and tables and chairs and light sockets provided the skeleton – the points of attachment and insertions in the body of the room. The taught string outlined the viscera over which we had to step and under which we had to crawl. Once the weaving was complete, and inside the body of the project they had created, the students drew out the entrails in long two-dimensional, strokes on clean white paper. Geometry and frustration took over and reigned for nearly a full term until the precise cleanliness of graphite and the joy of difference won over senses that were previously inured to expression and the dusty resilience of charcoal. Next time I will put life into the viscera. I will allow a model to step, climb, tiptoe and dance within the web. A model -representing or resembling the Other. I will explain the difference.
We drew the Other. Or rather we drew the world of the Other. I said:
There is perhaps nothing more poignant and disquieting than the ephemeral light of a candle as it tears from top to bottom the veil of the darkness that is the night. The veil hides our presupposed ‘truth’ of things, but the luminance of the candle, the trembling fragility of the flame affects and alters the way in which we see and therefore the way in which we understand the world. Ordinary things take on new aspects and drawing by the light of a candle brings into question the all of the ways in which we are accustomed to representing things in what we recognise as the world. The candlelight calls to us then, the candlelight draws us not towards the world but towards ‘our world’.
I read Shakespeare as the students drew out their fears and their fascinations in darkness, in silence.
‘Our world’ – a distant, mythical place, full of intangible and ephemeral entities that are derived from our memories, our hopes, our fears and all the things that lie above, below and beyond everyday life. In ‘our world’ we are separate from the ‘Other’. Our world is never the same as the world of the ‘Other’, but it can coincide. Just as we breathe the same air, just as we can see the ‘Other’ and define the boundaries that separate us from the ‘Other’, physically we can break through the boundaries and communicate with language. With language we allow the ‘Other’ into ‘our world’ and, in turn, with language we can enter theirs.
The silence grew so heavy that the occasional scratch of charcoal on paper created a cacophony of sound that was louder even that the screeching of the seagulls outside that reminded me of how close I am to the sea. (I miss the water so very much.)
Who then is the ‘Other’? Being the ‘Other’, he or she can never be the same as us. Yet we can only know ourselves, who we are, because of the ‘Other’. Our own identity is constructed in terms of the ‘Other’. We inhabit ‘our world’ only in the same way, and ultimately because, the ‘Other’ inhabits theirs.
We can draw the ‘Other.’ We can render the ‘Other’ recognisable in a portrait, but in the darkness, in silence, we cannot really know. We cannot be sure, we cannot rely on our senses and here we enter ‘our world’, a world in which we are able to recognise the presence of the ‘Other’ only by what we can remember, by what we think we know. Once behind the veil of darkness then we cannot rely on certainty. We cannot know the ‘Other’ and therefore we cannot know, for sure, ourselves. We might lose ourselves thus within our own world of memories, of yearnings, of feelings of being alone and in not knowing we might fear the unknown that ‘Other’ has become. We might fear the absence of the ‘Other’, an absence that in the dark creates an emptiness that we can only fill with our imaginings. We might begin to feel that we ourselves are the ‘Other’. This is a world of shadows, a world of ambivalence wherein we recognise ourselves in all that we see and wherein all that seems solid become fragile in the flickering candlelight as it passes in an out of recognisable form. This is ‘our world’.
I have found myself to be in the right place….after all.
It has happened again. This time in my right shoulder. A slow, painful adhesion that defies predicative logic and ensures that I pay full attention to every detail of physical movement.
I am in Lisbon – a beautiful city of patchwork pavements and majestic decay – far from the white walls of the consulting room where relief awaits. I am visiting, teaching drawing to students whose aspirations reach beyond economic constraints. Within the white walls of the life studio I elucidate the human form; axial and appendicula, construction, gesture. I sense the irony as the stiffness in my arm becomes a parody of the sweeping movement of charcoal across toothy paper.