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Painting as Pain Control

Here’s the key to managing long-term pain: the brain can only process one thing at a time with perfect clarity. It doesn’t focus on both pleasure and pain at the same time well. You can exploit this to escape from pain. The trick is to find something that requires a lot of brain function – following the plot of a book or TV show, sudoku, crosswords, puzzles, video games, and best of all, painting!

Like Wendell, my Dad, I (Wendy Roberts) am also an artist. Recently, I broke both bones in my ankle plus the malleus, and also, I tore the ligament on the back. It’s a bad injury that required surgery to set and it will take months to heal, so in the meantime, I am in a wheelchair. My situation isn’t nearly as serious or permanent as my Dad’s but I am learning a lot about the effect painting has on the control of pain, and the effect that pain and physical constraints have on painting. I want to share what I have learned firsthand so clearly now.

Wendy Roberts Kailua beautification project

Photo taken a few minutes before I broke my ankle.  The dropcloth of doom is visible, the small curb is obscuring my shoes.  Don’t use plastic dropcloths!  Photo by Jennifer Noel

The next two paragraphs are all about my injury, so you can skip it and take my word for it that my ankle has been a horrible experience, or you can delve into some specifics if you want the injury story. I will not regale you with the goriest play by play, but I was working on a mural, and I made the mistake of using a plastic dropcloth outdoors. Don’t ever do that because it turns into a slip and slide with the slightest rain! Furthermore, I had bad slippery shoes on that were worn and loved to the point of being totally smooth on the bottom – don’t wear shoes like that either! My left foot slid so fast as I stepped off the curb, that it took me a moment to figure out why my viewpoint had just dropped by 4 feet. I heard and felt the snap of my right leg which was folded under my body and I knew the ankle was broken. I took a quick look at my leg to try to ascertain the amount of damage, and as I slightly lifted my right leg, the ankle flopped sickeningly at an unnatural angle. I had the presence of mind to not look any further at my leg. I focused on getting help. There were some unlucky witnesses that became essential to my rescue and I am so grateful for their help! I could tell the sight of my ankle really bothered a couple of the people who helped me. I am sorry for that! I don’t know everyone who helped that day, but a nurse, Cynthia Bartlett, was one of the most involved. I appreciate her calm in the storm! After an ambulance ride, it took about 5 – 6 hours to hobble out of the ER in a splint and crutches.

In the early days of my ankle, nothing was really keeping the bones in place, so they would shift, and the pain level was the worst sustained pain I have ever experienced.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being uncontrollable barely conscious, and 1 being completely fine, I was constantly shifting between 5 – 9 pain in those days before surgery, usually I felt like it was around a 7. After the initial splint that lasted 3 days, I was given a walking boot for the sake of ease – not because I was ready to put any weight on my foot, but because theoretically it can be adjusted to accommodate swelling. I hated the boot.  It felt like a rock on my leg as if it had no padding at all.  Because of my impending surgery, the doctor only wanted me to take Tylenol. It isn’t very effective for me.  I had to wait 11 days for surgery. The first couple of days I couldn’t do much of anything, but after the initial devastation, I was able to fit a chair with a pillow behind my easel. I could finally prop up my leg to work on painting, and it was only for an hour or two per day, but it was the best pain control of the day. Only painting could drop my pain to a level where I almost didn’t notice it.

Painting became a refuge from the flames of pain. I have never experienced more of “the zone” than in those intense pain days. The zone is that state of mind where an artist is so fully processing the visual information and busy making choices of rendering that it almost feels directed by a creative spirit outside yourself. It’s an intense focus that makes the rest of the world outside the painting disappear. Hours can go by and feel like nothing. Every seductive detail of the paint was such a pleasure during this state of escape. I would listen to music (which I normally don’t do, but it helped me immerse into painting during this time), and I would paint the most elaborate parts of my current painting without the usual mental fatigue I get when depicting fussy details like grass or ferns.

I also noticed the impact of physical restraints on my mode of working. The painting I am working on is huge, and I couldn’t move its position or my position like I normally do, and thus, my painting developed in a much different way than normal. It forced me to work on a small area per session. Normally, I am physically free to search out various areas throughout the painting with the same color and I can place many different stokes in various parts of the painting at one time without changing my brush color as much. Instead, I had to work on one small area of the painting with lots of different colors at once. It’s a slower way to work under normal circumstances, but right now, shifting the position of the painting is a 5-10-minute task that involves raising or lowering my easels. This meant choosing a small area and sticking with it for two hours, usually completing it almost to finish. This is what my Dad would do too. His painting would lay flat on a table, but he had a limitation of reach, and he had to rotate it upside down to paint the sky most of the time.

Also, I noticed the cost of sitting up to paint.  After I would paint for a couple of hours, the pain would spike as I once again felt my body awareness return. I always knew when it was time to quit for the day. It gave me a large amount of insight into why my Dad worked the way he did. I remember after he would paint for the time his body could endure, he would rest for a couple of hours.  It took stamina to be able to sit up and paint for him too.  It is a pattern I followed without even noticing it at first. I would try to extend out my painting time as much as I could, just like he did, but it took a toll on my body and I would have to rest.

The lesson I have taken from this experience is the added dimension of pain control that art gives to those who spend time making it.  I love painting even more than before, and I see the passion my Dad had for it and the relief from pain it granted him.  I highly recommend painting as a pursuit during painful times. If you are facing a long recovery, finding a way to sit at an easel or table, or buying a portable sketchbook to draw or paint while reclining is a great way to take your mind off your troubles and escape the pain.

Maple Mountain, Wendell’s Muse

Maple Mountain at Dawn

Maple Mountain at Dawn

Aloha, this is Wendy, Wendell’s daughter. Artists often return to paint what they love over and over again.  I have been thinking about this lately as I begin yet another painting  of the Koolau Mountains, Oahu’s gorgeous volcanic shield mountains that are one of my most favorite subjects to paint.  Wendell’s muse was Maple Mountain.

Unlike me, Wendell grew up with his inspiration mountains.  Whereas I first hiked the Koolaus in my thirties, he hiked the mountains as a boy before his accident and saw Maple Mountain as the dominant feature of the landscape from every home he lived in. It was his favorite mountain among the stunning Uintah mountain range. Its face is nearly symmetrical from the viewing angle of Mapleton, and since it is due east, the sunrise over the mountain is a beautiful sight! Maple Mountain was not only a boyhood home for Wendell.  Visually, it was an inspiration.  He loved Maple Mountain way I love the vivid crags of the Koolaus.  Every triangular mound forming overall sculptural beauty.  I remember him talking about it multiple times when I was a child.  Maple Mountain is unique because it has such a pleasing shape and balanced form. Painting it is both easy and hard because it is so close to symmetrical that the foreground must contain some type of surprising interruption to the harmony of the mountain’s rounded form or else it can get be too perfect for our eyes that love a little surprise. In the example below, Wendell added horses in carefully designed asymmetrical groupings to provide the necessary counterbalance to the perfection of the mountains even triangular forms. I also particularly love the clouds and how they bring emphasis to the mountain’s highest peak in this piece.

Appaloosa Autumn

Appaloosa Autumn

This mountain to him was a symbol of home and the main feature of the beautiful land in which we live.  According to Wikipedia, it is apparently it is technically named “Spanish Fork Peak” by the Forest Service, but even that academic-sounding entry for Mapleton, Utah confesses that Mapleton residents call it “Maple Mountain”. Perhaps it will change over time since Spanish Fork has a larger population, but “Maple Mountain” was the local name throughout Mapleton when Wendell was painting it. The name seems lot more fitting to my ears since it is named not for early European arrivals who “discovered” the area (The Ute people had been living there already for countless years), but for the beauty of the mountain itself.  The leaves of the maple trees that make up a large number of the trees on the mountain, light up the mountain with beautiful flame-like colors every autumn, as seen in “Ute Encampment” below. Thus, it will always be “Maple Mountain” to me!

Ute Encampment

Ute Encampment

Wendell has painted the mountain in all the seasons and with various types of lighting and weather. He took footage of the mountain with his 8mm film, wrote about it in his “History of Mapleton”, and painted it many times. He has a few landscapes that are close-ups of various parts of the mountain, and features Maple Mountain present in the background of some of his historical scenes.

Amber Fields by Wendell B. Johnson

Amber Fields

I would love to include other painting images.  I will hopefully have a chance to scan his catalog, which, though the images are not qreat, at least has some of the paintings that were commissions that are now scattered.  If you are lucky, you might have a painting of the mountain by Wendell as a souvenir of home, and if so, please contact me (wendy at wendyrobertsfineart.com -please add the @ symbol in the correct place and take out the spaces – I am happy to share my email but trying to shield myself from spambots) if you would be willing to take a photo and share it with me for the site.

You can do it!

Aloha, I am Wendell’s daughter, Wendy Roberts.  I take care of his site as a way to share his story and hopefully encourage people who are going through a rough patch.  This blog is going to be about Wendell, but unfortunately, he cannot write it since he passed away in 1996, so I will write it about him as inspiration strikes. I wish he could write it for himself. He was a very engaging writer. I know he would have loved the Internet!

Today I’d like to share little about his perseverance. I hope it won’t be too heavy-handed because he really has a good encouraging story and he really lived the deep kind of hardship that allowed him to connect with people on a level that wasn’t superficial. I really would like this post to have that feeling of an arm around the shoulder on a tough day. I have this site online for several reasons, but the main one is to give encouragement to others who are facing problems that seem insurmountable.  Especially people facing paralysis.  There are so many tragedies. Traumatic events affect the lives of the families involved in a way that is impossible to place into words.  Life can change in sobering, forever-ways in just the blink of an eye.   When faced with this level of tragedy, my Dad’s story is an example that it doesn’t have to be the end of a meaningful life.

He chose persevere against all odds – I know he struggled with it, especially at first. By the time I knew him, it all seemed so second-nature, but it took years to develop that patience.  After a diving accident at the local swimming hole left his spinal cord severed,  and with no motion in his body from the neck down at the age of 16, I have been told by his close friends and family of the grief that overcame him.   He was placed on a striker frame to heal for months – immobile, unable to go to school.  Then later sent to the only type of rehabilitation center that existed at the time – a very depressing nursing home.  His drawings recalling this time period of his life are a remarkable portrait of his emotional landscape.  They show a deep feeling of depression and of uncertainty of what life might hold for the future.  When the accident first happened, he could not move, so these drawings were done years later, but they are his pieces that most encapsulate the struggle.  They remind me that even my positive, cheery Dad had days when he felt like this:

or this:

or this:

Desolation by Wendell B Johnson

Desolation

I treasure these images of despair because it reminds me that even when things feel this bleak, vastly better times can be ahead.

My Dad had his accident back in a different time that was devoid of so many helpful inventions that we, even those who lived through it, can barely believe we lived without.  A time without computers.  A time with far more primitive medicine.  A time before disability legislation (no accessible restrooms, no wheelchair accessible curbs, no rules about elevators, no mandated building ramps, etc…).  So many things were missing that we now have. His life was a series of improvisations made from duct tape, wire, and ingenuity to overcome his physical limitations.  His father’s welding and wood working skills went a long way toward enabling Wendell to live a productive life, but it was his endurance that carried him through, one day at a time.

Every tiny thing in Wendell’s life had to be problem-solved, from getting a drink when he was thirsty and home alone (A big jug of water with a flexible tube tied in a place where he could reach it as needed), to answering the phone (a hook was added to the receiver so he could pick it up using his brace), to eating (my mother heated and bent the handles of a set of spoons so the handles could fit in a loop on his arm brace, and then she cut every meal into bite-size pieces).  Every little thing was hard for him, and each aspect took time to solve so he could do it independently.  Nothing was done without some sort of adaptation.

And yet,he managed to accomplish so much under these harsh circumstances.  It is a marvel to me.  He overcame the expectations of his Doctors, accomplishing so much more than they ever could have dreamed. From complete paralysis, he worked very hard to rehabilitate a small twitch in his shoulder so he could eventually control his shoulder and bicep.  Doctors counseled him he would never move below the neck again, because the spinal cord was severed at C4/C5, but somehow, his body recovered bicep control.  He became an artist, patiently using his left bicep muscle and gravity (to control the downswing that would normally be performed by his non-functioning tricep). Every stroke was improbable, but he completed an impressive portfolio of paintings and drawings.  Each one took a long time to complete.  Painting completion times were usually measured in months, but he developed enough technical skill to win top honors at art shows. His prognosis was to die at age 24, he managed to live to age 48 – much longer than his prognosis. He co-wrote two books on local history and served as Justice of the Peace and later elected Mayor of the small town where he lived.  He married, and against all odds, fathered and raised a child.  All of this would have sounded impossible in those first days of the accident.  Because he kept working at it a little bit each day, the accomplishments accumulated. Gifts beyond our control are often given to people who try to make the most of their opportunities.

I really want his story to apply to your life. If you have been given a terrible prognosis, or have insurmountable odds against you in any aspect of life, try your best to stay positive and patiently work toward the things you want. Even if they seem impossible, please protect that spark of hope. Work toward what you want in small ways every day. It is amazing what can happen if you do not let predictions stop you from just trying something.  Perseverance is an amazing force for change.  Your goals might not happen quickly, but over time, you will make gains that no one could have anticipated.  Keep on keeping on!

Maple Mountain at Dawn

Maple Mountain at Dawn

This was among my Dad’s last paintings. I like to contrast it with his early works and note the vibrant colors and increased technical skill. This image, in my opinion, captures something about his overall attitude after all those years of refinement through adversity.