The Art of Nursing?

The Illogical Choice

Picture a slightly thinner and even more neurotic18-year-old Lizzie as she tries to decide what to do with her life (or at least the next 4 years).  When I was struggling with picking a major, and thus the trajectory of my future, I knew that I had options, but I also knew that was going to present difficulty.  While I’ve always been creative and artistic, I’m also fairly well balanced between the control of the left and right sides of my brain, so I was hesitant to jump on the art school train. I thought, “I’m good at anatomy, I like helping people, I don’t have a weak stomach”, and I knew from my dad’s health issues that the nurses are the ones with the most hands-on opportunity to make a difference in a patient’s life.  

It’s worth mentioning that most of my family said, “Really? I don’t see it…,” when I told them about my plan. And the same dad who unknowingly influenced the outcome so heavily is also the one that begged me to, “Go to art school! You have your whole life to do what you’re supposed to do!”  But I heeded exactly none of their warnings and continued on what seemed like the, “adult” path at that time. So, with all the assuredness that one can muster at such a young age, I enrolled in a nursing program at a competitive, four-year school.

Almost immediately I doubted my decision. In fact, the summer after my first full year I was ready to course-correct to the art school path I sped past only 9 months before. Art school sounded so comfortable and laid-back, like a beautiful escape from the daily rigors and extensive time commitment of nursing school. But alas, my wise father swooped in with more advice, this time encouraging me to finish what I’d started, even if it wasn’t the art program he’d encouraged. After much contemplation and oceans of tears, I buckled-down and finished the program.

I’m a nurse…am I?

I’m the first to admit I’ve never really identified as a nurse like most in the profession do.  It was never a long-celebrated calling for me, but rather a seemingly last-minute play call. However, I’ve found many things I like about this career I worked so hard for. I love being relied upon and the fact that people trust me with their lives and the lives of their loved ones. I like that I get to meet new people and their varied personalities and constantly learning something new (it’s literally dangerous to stop).  Assisting with the most intimate details of someone’s health, and seeing them naked for that matter, gives me a reason to skip the small talk and really connect with my patients and their families. Especially as a hospice nurse, I meet people during a deeply personal season of life that often involves a lot of introspection and reminiscing. I’ve heard patients share things with their families that they’ve never told anyone before, and helped clients work through some intensely complicated emotions as they prepare to pass on to whatever they believe is next for them.  I’ve also seen the worst sides of people, and the many ways that past experiences bubble to the surface when the reality of death is no longer just a possibility in the distant future. Death does something to people, and I don’t just mean to the person dying; the people around the situation often revert back to the base instincts of their childhood when dealing with complex emotions as they struggle for any control over a rapidly changing situation. Once people realize they don’t have an endless supply of time to make up for the past, they try to blame the process of passing peacefully. Under typical circumstances people don’t reveal the inner workings of their familial relationships to just anyone, but when someone is dying that all seems to be forgotten.  Despite all of this, there’s something about being dropped right in the middle of an exceptionally personal family situation with complete strangers that makes me feel more connected to my own loved ones than ever before.

Letting it move my art

This daily reminder of the impermanence of our time on earth has made me think a lot about what I want people to think of me when I’m gone. If I were to die today how many people would be better for knowing me? Helping other people work through the toughest transition in life has encouraged me to look within myself to the emotions and experiences I avoid processing myself, things that take me months to acknowledge. I see the complexities and layers that form throughout the course of an individual’s life, and realize that none of our interactions are ever truly momentary. Our reactions, speech patterns, and level of understanding are all formed through a lifetime of exchanges that ripple out to affect those around us. My current series of paintings are an abstract representation of this, investigating the many ways we are molded by our ever-changing environment.  I want to spark difficult conversations that force us to explore the effects of our treatment of each other. We never know what will stick with someone and resonate for years to come. Seemingly insignificant interactions can leave lasting impressions, while grand gestures may be quickly forgotten. My art honors the complexities of people everywhere, illustrates the influence of small gestures, and reminds us to deal in ample understanding when interacting with the individuals we encounter along our way.

I’m also a firm believer in pointing the finger at yourself before calling anyone else to the carpet, so I’ve created work that displays some of my most intimate insecurities and personal shortcomings, because, as I’ve learned in hospice, offering a private or delicate part of yourself can be incredibly equalizing.  While there’s a lot of freedom in this vulnerability, it can be asking a lot of others that they know how to react to these things, so I do what I can to communicate my message subtly with a commitment to abstract aesthetic appeal. Creating something beautiful is my way of contributing something new and good back into a world that has plenty of anger and death. Difficult emotions viewed through the lens of a striking work of art, demonstrate that negative experiences don’t have to remain bitter memories, but can lead to the betterment of our character.

Identity crisis averted

Although there have been times when I’ve questioned my decision to forego art school for a more practical option, as I clean complicated wounds and hold the hands of people dying too young, I know this work has a purpose.  It’s led to so much personal and artistic development that there’s no way it could be wasted time. Throughout my life art and nursing have both afforded me countless opportunities to connect with people I would otherwise never have known, people that I still cherish.  And although I would love the freedom to create full time, I recognize that as a nurse I am uniquely positioned to make a difference in someone’s life, and I can then communicate my practice onto canvas to create a new experience for my audience and collectors. It's also worth mentioning that my work in nursing has pushed me harder to make a name for myself in the art world, so that I can one day make my dreams my reality. Just like my grandma always told me, it's just as important to know what you don't want to do as what you do want to do. So, while an art degree might have made me a better painter, nursing has made me a better person more ready to expand my capabilities.