Monday, April 28, 2014

Art related injuries

One of my favorite artists, Lois Van Baarle, recently revealed her struggles with an industry-related injury she suffered to her drawing arm. It's rough, and MOST of us who live to tell stories through visual media WILL suffer something similar at some point in our lives.

Here's her story.

I have gone through similar injuries that poor Lois is going through now... twice.

And in response to her painful experience with her injury, I thought I'd share my own.

Injury #1
I've been using computers as one of the main tools of my trade for over 16 years now. Graphic design, storyboarding, print layout, and digital illustration. About 10 years ago, I started to have terrible pain in my wrist and elbow. It was like a dull, throbbing, jolt of electricity pulsing throughout my upper arm, elbow and wrist. And every pulse made my arm feel weak. I could barely close my fist without feeling pain course up and down my right arm from my shoulder to the tips of my fingers.  I was quickly reduced to using a wrist-brace just to be able to do any drawing at all.

I was lucky in that I happened to know a local occupational physical therapist who took pity on me and gave me some suggestions. She explained to me that my biggest problem was the INTENSITY in how I approached my artwork. I was so INTENT on what I was drawing or constructing while on the computer, that I was literally damaging myself.  I was locking up my elbow and shoulder at the joints. My wrist was clenching the stylist pen, or mouse with a death grip. And all the intensity of my concentration was building up pressure in muscles of my right shoulder!

Sound silly to you? Try this..grab a tennis ball, sit down at a table and squeeeeze that tennis ball with all your strength with your fingers. At the same time, use the force you have in your arm and shoulder muscles to try to really...rrrubbb... that tennis ball down through the wood of the table! Now, do that for 4 hours at a time... for several days in a row... and see how that feels.

"What kind of fool would do that to themselves?!?" you might ask.

Well... me.. for one. And thousands of other people too. This happens to passionate people who really care about what they do. People who become so lost, so focused, so passionate in what they are doing, that they don't realize the pressures and intensity they are pouring though their own shoulder-arm-wrist-fingers...

The therapist (her name was "Janet") taught me that I needed to learn how to relax. To take breaks. To stand up once in a while and move my joints around for a couple of minutes. She taught me to adjust my work-station so that my elbow was at as close to a 90-degree angle as possible. She explained that I needed to STOP every once in a while. Several times a day. And take a moment to loosen up my joints, shake my wrists around a bit. Wiggle my fingers, flex my elbow and lift my arm above my head a few times. 

I want to point out that she helped me out of kindness. I had no money and couldn't pay her for her help. But she could see the pain I was enduring and chose to help me anyway.

A real sweetheart. I will always be grateful.

Eventually, I hit on the idea to practice juggling on those breaks. Taking a break to practice juggling for a couple of minutes gives me something fun to look forward to, and something else into which to dump my pent-up intensity. I could focus on the choreography of tossing the balls while at the same time, I was loosening up my joints. I'm not a good juggler. But that doesn't matter. It's fun to do, and it loosens up my arm beautifully.

The pain has gone away and I haven't had to use the brace since then. Mind you, the pain will come back if I forget, and allow myself to get to uptight... but when that happens, I've learned to recognize it as a warning to take a break, and relax. Than I'm fine again.

Injury #2
The second injury to my drawing arm was a broken, right shoulder-blade. Happened just a couple of years ago. Aahhh yes, I'll never forget that backwards, 5-foot fall from the top of a ladder, down to the cold, hard concrete below. The sickening "CRUUNCH" as my shoulder-blade took the brunt of the impact. And the following, three months of living as a one-armed man. I couldn't use my right arm at all without experiencing a lot of pain. The doctors had me put that arm in a sling and told me to "NOT MOVE IT" for those three-long-months, till my shoulder-blade bones could knit back together.

I still had to work. Had to pay the mortgage and feed my children. So I went back to work as an Art Director at the advertising agency I worked for at the time. And did the best that I could with my left hand instead. I was slower, yes... but my creativity... My talent for inventing new concepts... and my ability to make decisions about line-quality, color, composition, value and chroma were just fine thank you very much. I discovered that my artistic talents reside in my MIND, not my arm.
So, I made do. And I learned to trust in my own mind's ability to coax what was needed from my inexperienced, albeit willing left-hand.

I now know that if I had to, I could use my feet, or my teeth even, to create artwork as beautiful and as effective as I've ever created before. Because the talent resides in the mind.

The doctors explained to me that I MUST go to physical therapy if I wished to regain the full-use of my right arm again.

"okay, fine. How much will it cost me" I asked.
"It will cost you about a million-kazillion dollars" was their answer... more or less.

I didn't have insurance. Couldn't afford it at the time. So I politely declined. Went home. Endured the three months of pain and sleepless nights with my right arm in a sling... and then went back to living my life as I'd always done before. Picking up my children and hugging them. Mowing the lawn. Drawing. Lifting heavy boxes up onto high shelves for my wife. That kind of stuff.

But, I'd remembered what I'd learned in my first experience with my injured drawing arm. I worked. I DREW... But I took care to listen to my body. And took breaks... I started juggling again. And yes, at first, it hurt to do those things.

Two years later and I'm fine... I draw every day. And I use the computer everyday. And I make sure to relax everyday as well. Sometimes my body gets tired before my mind... but I've learned to be aware of the warning signs and be patient.

With these experiences I hope to be able to maintain the ability to keep drawing till the very day I die!

David Church

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