A dialogue with Art Editor Laura Ferguson
Carol Donley, in her annotation of Cortney’s book in the LitMed Database, writes that “the vivid paintings speak for themselves, and they add a different way of knowing not available through words.” As an artist whose work explores the experiences of her own body, I believe strongly in the power of art to express things that can’t be as easily communicated in other ways, especially about experiences that go deep, like illness, pain, and isolation. Because Cortney is both a medical professional and a wonderful writer, I welcomed the opportunity for a dialogue with her about the expressive power of visual art.
Laura: You chose painting to express your feelings about the experience of being a patient, even though you are also a writer and poet. Can you say more about why it felt more right to express yourself without words? Do you think it was because the experience was so physical, so much about the body? For me, drawing seems to come directly from my body – it allows my body to express itself directly, through my hand. Is that how it felt for you?
Cortney: I didn’t really choose painting, rather it sort of chose me. When I was finally discharged after the second hospitalization my friends wondered if I was going to write about my experience. I felt the need to respond to my illness in some creative way (maybe turning illness into something creative is a way of taking control?), but I really could not find the words. It felt as if there were no words to adequately express what I had been through or what I’d experienced in the hospital. Words seemed too intellectual, too distant and too controlled to express something that felt raw, profound, and frightening. Also, since I’m primarily a writer, there is always an internal editor that watches over my shoulder when I write, and I didn’t have the emotional energy to embark on a writing “project” that I’d be trying to make “good” or “worthy.”
My urge to paint took me a bit by surprise because I’m not a painter. A few months before my surgery, a painter friend had invited me to her house to paint with her, and she had introduced me to acrylics and oils – that was the first time I’d put paint to canvas. But after a few of our painting sessions, I was hospitalized. When I was discharged, I remembered that I had paints and some blank canvases at home. I felt drawn to paint images that I recalled from my hospitalization. My illness was all about my body, and painting seemed to be all about the body too: the smell of the paint and the feel of the paint and the brush on the canvas, the movement of my hand and arm, the lack of an internal editor (since I really had no idea if I was doing the painting “right” or not), the emotional impact of the colors and shapes, and the lack of the need to “intellectualize” the process.
Laura: Why did you then decide to add words? How would you characterize the relationship of your words to your paintings, or what you felt their purpose was? Do you think the paintings can stand alone?
Cortney: After I’d painted the twelve images, I wanted to share them with some of my nurse friends and with my family. I took photos of the paintings with my iPad and wanted to send them around, but I knew that viewing the paintings alone, unless someone knew a bit about what had happened, might be confusing. I added the commentaries in an attempt to make my very personal experience more universal, and to put down in words why those particular images stayed with me. By the time I added the commentaries, I was months into my recovery and feeling as if I might now find the words. The painting had helped me enter once again into the illness in an attempt to make emotional sense of it, and maybe the words helped make intellectual sense of it.
I now think the paintings could stand alone (now that I can see them more objectively), or at least a viewer might get a general sense of the story if he or she viewed the images as a series. But, since I’m a writer and not an artist, I felt the urge, eventually, to explain to others and to myself just what was going on in each painting.
Laura: Would you say that you made the paintings more for yourself or for other viewers? Do other paintings convey powerful, deep feelings to you? Do you think the paintings allow viewers to empathize with your experience?
Cortney: I think some artists and writers “do” their art in spite of illness, and some because of illness. In my writing about being a nurse, I write because of others’ illnesses as an observer. But painting as a patient, I was painting and then writing because of my own illness. Interesting! I never would have come up with those specific images if I’d not been a patient.
Laura: You told me that some people were “creeped out” by your paintings, or found them too depressing. – but I don’t think people who’ve been there, who’ve been through experiences like this, will find them depressing. I think it’s great that you go right to the heart of suffering, not sugar-coating it. You’re willing to admit how out of control, how vulnerable you felt – and I think that totally comes across in the paintings. I’m sure you were an empathetic nurse, so can you say more about why you needed to experience being a patient yourself in order to understand what it was like to feel that vulnerable?
Cortney: I had been a patient many times before this last illness. But I’d never been close to death as a patient, or so sick for an extended period of time. I believe it might have been the very real possibility that I could die that made a difference in my understanding of the power of illness. I experienced a deep hopelessness and even a wish that I would die quickly, if I was meant to die. I had time to contemplate suffering and to review my life, realizing all the ways in which, while I’d been empathic, I had failed to understand the depths of suffering – mental, physical and spiritual – that gravely ill patients can experience.
In addition, my prolonged hospitalization was the direct result of a surgical mishap and, during my hospitalization, there were other complications that stemmed from lab and medication errors. Not only was I seriously ill, I was for the first time a patient who was unable to rely completely on those who were caring for me. Because I was a nurse, I could see the events and complications of my illness both from the inside – my personal experience of them – and from the outside – my inability to make sense of why or how these errors had occurred and were occurring.
As a writer, I’d always thought that I had the vocabulary with which to express what my patients might be experiencing, and to express what I was experiencing as their caregiver, in my poems and non-fiction. But during this illness, I felt in a very profound way the metaphorical inadequacy or incompleteness of my vocabulary. There is a level of vulnerability that can’t be intuited from the bedside but can only be experienced.
Laura: Related to that, do you think it’s possible that nurses (and other medical professionals) get a sense of control from their jobs, that makes them feel protected from being in the patient role – a kind of magical thinking?
Cortney: I believe that all caregivers are acutely aware, especially after years of practice, that it only takes one second for someone to be thrust from the role of caregiver to the role of patient. And I believe too that there are many instances in medicine and nursing in which caregivers feel totally out of control – not wise enough, not quick enough, not prepared enough. I never felt that I would be “in control” by virtue of being a nurse, or that being a nurse combated any fear of dependency. I was more often in awe, feeling great vulnerability, but always both enriched and humbled by my interactions with patients.
[Editor’s note: Part 2 of this dialogue will be published next week, with more about Cortney’s studio process, and thoughts about artmaking as a way of both holding on to and letting go of control.]