I just ran into a soldier, a former Marine, while picking up more art supplies today. We were both in Michael’s, and arts and craft supply store near New Haven. Javier was apparently wounded in Iraq, when a bullet shattered his helmet. For an hour, the corpsman thought he was dead. In an effort to avoid traumatizing Javier’s unit, the corpsman left his helmet on and left him with other corpses of the men in their unit. An hour later when Javier regained consciousness, he found his men trying to remove his boots. He said to them “hey these are my boots, not yours.” He was evacuated to a hospital. But, although he had been knocked out for an hour, there were only superficial wounds on his head.Damage to his brain seem to be minimal. He was given some stitches, and sent back to the front lines a few days after his “lucky break.”
But all was not well in Javier’s mind. While leading his team through a building, Javier discovered, to his dismay, that he had forgotten how to walk down stairs, or use the hand signals that Marines are trained to use to communicate silently. He tumbled down a flight of steps hitting his head several times on the way down. His team gradually discovered other weaknesses that were real liability on the battlefield. Javier had forgotten the words to common objects like rifle and helmet and “open fire”, which definitely got in the way of being able to be an effective team leader. Whole classes of words were simply absent from his memory, like book and friend. He was released from active duty service and sent home to recuperate in a VA hospital.
About a week ago, apparently, Javier discovered that he has drawing abilities — abilities he never had before. When he draws pictures of things, words associated with those things gradually return to him. Accordingly, his therapist at the VA hospital have recommended a course of drawing to him, as a way of restoring his memory of words, at his awareness of himself. He says as well that he can only write clearly after he has drawn for a while, and thus the concussion has left his speech impaired but the more that he draws the faster his speech improves, and the more vocabulary returns.
I did not find all this out right away, and I may have a few details wrong, of course. The conversation was wonderful, but complicated because — although I’ve presented it linearly here, the tale came in fits and spurts there. Javier originally asked me where to find rulers. He was learning to practice drawing straight edges. I showed him where I had gotten the ruler in my hand. But another person in the store had just asked me about paper, and I was explaining to this other student what the difference was between watercolor paper, dry media paper and Bristol board. Javier came up behind me to listen to what I had to say. Then he decided that I was an artist, based on how I spoke to the young man taking his first drawing class.
Javier asked a lot of questions, and I answered with as much clarity and confidence as I could. We talked about the differences between various kinds of paper, various drawing tools, and methods of improving one’s drawing skills rapidly. Javier seemed to be highly motivated. Recovering his full speaking skills seems to be high on his list of priorities, and learning to draw seems to be the only way he can find to get there. I found him the notebook and a couple of guidebooks to help him get started in his practice, and I also found some tools which helped me get started, but mostly it was about talking, and giving him some confidence in his artistic abilities. Along the way he told me his story, which I find to be extraordinary.
It occurs to me that we will be seeing a lot more of this, these incredibly difficult brain injuries. Think: this man had a position, presumably a fire-team leader or a sergeant’s billet, and authority and competence. And suddenly he’s having a lot of difficulty communicating anything to anyone, and he can’t even go down stairs without losing his balance. And here he is, at home, recuperating from this injury that in another war might have splattered his brains all over foreign soil.
I’m glad he’s alive. Before we parted, I saluted him for his service to this country, and I shook his hand as a fellow artist.
Oh, and I gave him this card with the attached illustration, which I happened to have in my pocket from earlier in the day. It shows the Tenth Mansion of the Moon, Al-Jabbah “The Mane”. It is the lion above the city and the river, and it’s a symbol for good fortune and success and achievement, etc, etc.. So, Javier, if you should stumble across this blog, you’ll know it was me and you that I’m talking about here. If you do, my apologies for telling your story. In the meantime, may success come to you, and may the good fortune of the sign of Al-Jabbah find you and your fellow comrades in concussion-recovery.
While we were in the Drawing supplies section of Michael’s, I explained to him the following art exercise:
- Get a notebook with plain (i.e., unlined) pages
- Every day, mark off a part of each page with a box or a shape of some kind: a quarter of a page, a half-page, even the whole page.
- Put the date on that page
- Create a piece of art that fills that box.
- Don’t erase any of your lines (ink is best)
- Fill the rest of the page with a journal entry describing what you did.
- You can do more than one page a day, but always art.
- Get the bad and awkward art out of your system, one page at a time.
The rest of your artwork, of course, will gradually improve, because you are practicing the pen-work and the composition skills that you need to be a visual artist. And if you’re copying out poetry and other texts (a nod to the “Wise”), the use of the images on the pages will help you learn and remember the poetry through the positioning of the artwork.