How does one thank the surgeon who saved her artistic talent from a spine injury? Watercolor artist Jennifer Hunter shares the life-changing experience that helped her overcome fears, regain control of her arms, and return to painting.
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BY JENNIFER HUNTER
The image of my face greeted me on a monitor. I glanced around the room noting the emerald green wall and the shiny instruments laid upon the table. The room was buzzing with blue clad personnel all there for me. I was here to welcome my future. Moments earlier, I had held the hand of a kind surgeon and thanked him for what he was about to do.
I had not been able to paint for a year and a half, and my last painting had been accepted into an OPA Salon show. Every brush stroke hurt, and I didn’t have the strength to hold up my arm and hand. I sat at my easel with my arm supported on my mom’s walker and tried to make strokes that looked like I had used my arm. I had to rest often and hoped no one could see my physical pain.
It had been a long road that began with an injured spinal disc in a traffic accident 20 years earlier. I had a choice to make. I had worked for years to refine my painting ability since my days at the American Academy. I had come too far to let that fade into a disability. I had been battling my fear of spine surgery for months when I realized that I had within me all the tools I needed. As an artist, I had confronted failure in learning my craft, so I didn’t fear a blank canvas, it was new territory for exploration, and now I would be draped in the fabric of a new beginning.
I worked out a strategy as I followed a path through the imaging, tests, and evaluations. I had been teaching myself to lower my blood pressure with deep breathing and music, and added images of my doctors because I wanted to associate them with calmness. I only paint or draw subjects I like, so it made sense to me to start drawing my doctors so I could like them instead of fear them. I also took my own paintings with me when I was having some painful nerve testing so I had a place to escape. I had already been turned down by five surgeons, and with a painting at my side, I waited to meet a new surgeon at the Mayo Clinic.
I chose him because of his background and training. I also saw in the photo of his face a man who’s expression was kind. He immediately liked my oil painting of Indians herding horses that were running in the Cheyenne River and said he wouldn’t mind having something like that in his home. I told him that could be arranged and we all laughed. That was a great beginning that planted a seed. He allowed me to take a few photos of him and I began sketching my new doctor, and if I got nervous on the countdown to surgery, I just did another drawing. I brought my watercolor painting of Rocky Mountain National Park to the hotel and tried to get lost there the night before my surgery.
In the days after surgery I rested, and I thought a lot about painting. I had accomplished something I never expected to be able to do in confronting and deprogramming my fears. I needed to know if I would be capable of painting again at the level I expected of myself. I was filled with gratitude for the man whose compassion rescued my talent, and I needed to paint as physical therapy to rebuild the muscles I needed for painting. I arranged with his nurse to return for a follow-up appointment on one of his surgery days so I could get a few photos of him in his scrubs. He was such a good sport about my surprise plan and strutted around the room much to my amusement. He told me that I could back out if this was too much, and that he wanted to pay the framing costs. I was honored that he trusted me and I had a new goal in healing myself. My purpose was two-fold, to express my gratitude to the man who made possible the return of my artistic gift, and to rediscover and awaken my talent.
I was inspired by the beautiful brass outer doors on Mayo’s historic Plummer building representing the history of Mayo. My surgeon trained there. I chose to represent his place in history by placing him in front of the historic doors with Mayo’s history literally behind him.
I painted this in watercolor, my favorite medium because it was a greater challenge, and I spent a month creating this painting and filming my progress. When I returned to Mayo for the one year exam, I had a new painting that I hid behind the curtain in the exam room. He wanted to be surprised, and he beamed when we discovered what was behind the curtain. He couldn’t stop looking at the portrait and commented on the reflection of himself in the glass doors.
Now, I volunteer on Mayo Clinic Connect, a patient forum, where I help others learn to advocate for themselves, and to help them understand medical information and confront medical fears.
Connect with Watercolor Artist Jennifer Hunter:
- Art Website: www.jenniferhunter.co
- Stories of Courage, Creative, and Inspiration: www.artforhopeandhealing.com
- YouTube Channel: www.youtube.com/user/RockyMountainArtist/videos
- Mayo Clinic blog, “Using the Art of Medicine to Overcome Fear of Surgery”: https://sharing.mayoclinic.org/2019/01/09/using-the-art-of-medicine-to-overcome-fear-of-surgery/
- Mayo Clinic interview: “Meet Jennifer Hunter: Where Health and Art Meet”: https://connect.mayoclinic.org/page/about-connect/newsfeed-post/meet-jenniferhunter-where-health-and-art-meet/
Watch a Time-Lapse Documentary of the Watercolor Portrait Painting of Dr. Jeremy Fogelson:
Additional Paintings by Jennifer Hunter:
Has art ever helped you heal? Share your experience with us in the comments below.
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Remember: Save years of struggle and frustration by discovering techniques revealed by some of the world’s top artists in just three days in the world’s largest online art training event, Watercolor Live, January 2022.