What makes us draw what we see, those of us that do? What is it that keeps us drawing? Sure, there is the ‘oooh and aaaah’ audience factor, but long after the girl you were trying to impress, or your grannie, or your dad are gone you will still have all of those sketches in a box, in the leaves of a book, or maybe – if it was particularly good – in an old picture frame. And every once in a while you will open that box, or book or the picture on the wall will catch your eye, and in studying those pencil marks you made so long ago you will be transported back to the moment. You will be there again. We draw so that we can capture and preserve a memory. We have been doing it for thousands of years.
This sketch above is almost 20 years old now. Somewhere in that tangle of electrical wires, fluid tubes and tape is my firstborn son. He is just shy of three months old, weighs under seven pounds, and has barely survived a marathon three-hour open-heart surgery. During the operation, his mum and I slept, exhausted with worry – in an old VW van in the hospital parking lot. Later we stood pale and limp and frightened in the corridor with the surgeon, where he told us it had all gone okay, but that our boy’s heart had stopped a number of times. “But it fired right up again right away,” he said cheerfully. I clearly remember the coldness of the horror rushing up my spine at those glib words.
Eleven weeks earlier, Joseph William Johnson arrived into the world. He let out a loud yell and immediately turned blue. And was rushed into surgery. And that was just the beginning.
Joe was born with transposed major arteries, a twisted heart plumbing problem that had it neatly pumping his newly lung-oxygenated blood right back to his lungs again, while also pumping the oxygen-depleted blood from his body right back to his body again. To patch this problem in the short term, within hours of being born, surgeons punched a hole through his heart’s septum to let a fraction of that properly oxygenated blood trickle across. Normal healthy adults have oxygen saturation of around 98 percent. Even after the hole punch, Joe’s was around 50. They were worried about possible brain damage.
After a couple of days in the hospital, they sent us all home. Our instructions were simple: “Make him grow.” The doctors explained that the bigger we could make him the more chance of later surgical success in fixing his heart. For nine weeks the whole family focused every minute of every day and night on getting every drop of food into him we could. We adjusted our whole lives to feeding times. Even our 8-year-old daughter pitched in with bottle-feeding when we were exhausted. It made no difference. Joey’s weight dropped. 10, 9, 8 pounds … when it touched seven the decision was made to go ahead with the surgery he desperately needed regardless. It was now, or it wasn’t going to happen.
And so on a gray, cold winter day while we slept exhausted with worry in our van, a god-like surgeon cut my little man’s transposed major arteries from his walnut-sized heart and attached them back to where they were supposed to be. I have never truly been able to absorb how incredible this feat of medicine really was. I mean I understand it – the mechanics of it. But when I try to imagine a man’s hands manipulating my son’s tiny heart my imagination balks at, well, imagining it. Tears well in my eyes every time I think of it, even now.
In the first three weeks after the surgery Joe’s mum and I split the hospital time. She along, with my daughter, covered the days and I covered the evenings late into the night. Mostly, at first, there was not much to do. He was kept deep asleep to give his wee beaten-up body a chance. But we would sit with him anyway, listening to every breath, every beep, every alarm and drip. Watching him.
The nurses and doctors had told us to take lots of pictures and that it was important to do so — so that we would have something, just in case. I think it was the second night on my own that I decided to draw him. I had not drawn anything, I mean really sketched anything LIVE in many years. But it felt right. So he breathed and I drew.
Over the first week he gradually improved, backslid, improved again, then backslid again. Each night in the infant intensive care unit I drew him, while willing each breath and flushing with panic at any pause in rhythm. I memorized every detail and drew it as well as I could. I wanted to remember every moment with of him.
And because of the drawing I remember every scary detail. I remember that he had a piece of two-inch gauze tape up the middle of his chest (on it the surgeon had written “OPEN STERNUM,” a warning to anyone who might attempt compression as part of resuscitation). I remember wires coming out of his wound that led to an external pacemaker. He had a great stuffed yellow Big Bird toy, and a rainbow colored caterpillar, and a blue heart-shaped pillow, and a great shock of blond to brown hair on his head. And the tubes and wires, so many tubes and wires. Looking at these sketches now I can still hear his breathing and the beeping of the machinery.
Ever so slowly, the life-supporting close monitoring equipment was removed. The pacemaker went, then a few days later the chest drain, then the oxygen. They gradually reduced his meds. And from under it all my boy appeared again. Then one night I woke from a nap in the chair by his bed to find his bright blue eyes wide open again. He was still a bit doped and I wasn’t sure he could really see anything but for a while we just stared at one another. And then because it was what I was used to doing, I drew him.
It is not a very good drawing. At every stroke I expected him to close his eyes again, but he didn’t. He just stared until I was done. And then he closed his eyes. As if he’d been waiting for me to finish.
Some time toward the end of the second week, they moved Joseph William onto the main ward. In 20 years, he has never looked back.
I don’t really remember the person I was before he was born. I don’t think any of us really become the person we are until we face some adversity. In this case, having a sick child made me the person I am, and in a way, he even taught me to draw. I owe him a lot and I don’t think he even knows it.
That thing I mentioned earlier about a drawing’s power to transport you back to the moment when you created it – there is a strange thing about that – because to a lesser degree you can also transport someone who was never there. Years from now, or days from now, people squinting at your sketch – good or bad – will be connecting with that time on a very personal, human level. Seeing and feeling the world through you.
This is why we draw.
And finally for my artist of note this week, I choose David Griffin, the former Visuals Editor at the Washington Post. David’s work really couldn’t be much more different than my own. His thing is skies. He has a place in Bethany Beach in Delaware and when the mood takes him, he sets up on the shore and attempts to translate the sky onto canvas. For me these feel like part art and part meditation on canvas. He has been doing these for decades. It is easy to find yourself transported through his work. That is the highest compliment I can give him.
You can see more of David’s work here. David Griffin Studio
Good luck out there, Dave.
So now is the time to pick up that pencil again. A new year beckons. Maybe make sketching your resolution this year. I guarantee in 20 years you will be glad you did. Send it in to email@example.com
And if you are out there and doing stuff I need to see, then please do send it along. I’ll post it up here on the Washington Post’s best Urban Sketching blog.
Want to see more of my work? www.newsillustrator.com.