~Art was an integral part of myself. I had to get it back.


Steven Sickles

Five-Finger Exercise

When I lost all the digits from my right hand to meningitis three years ago, I feared I might have lost some other things as well, things I considered integral parts of myself.

I found there were two pursuits by which I define myself. How well I do them is immaterial. One activity requires two hands, the other, my dominant right hand. Doing these things at all—much less doing them well—was beginning to look pretty grim.

After three months of inactivity and the loss of 20 pounds, my first order of business was to return to the gym to see if I could recover the body I had worked so hard to create. Through hereditary stubbornness and the help of a talented prosthetist, I gained back the weight I'd lost plus an additional 10 pounds of muscle for good luck.

Pursuit of the second activity was going to be harder. Since Kaiser, my health plan, would never approve the outrageous luxury of two different and specialized prosthetic devices, I had to choose which of my two consuming passions was going to be helped along with assistive technology. I decided that recovering physically and using my physique to distract people from my handicap was my greatest concern. I had spent too many years fighting my own self-consciousness to retreat now.

So it seemed there was no hope for it: it was the weight machines that were going to meet my new prosthetic hand; I would simply have to learn to draw with my left hand.

Even after years of painting and drawing, there is nothing I find more terrible than a blank sheet of paper. Think about it: the subject matter is endless, techniques range from the precise to the impressionistic to the abstract, and the mediums at my disposal go from something as thin as a pen point to brushes broader than a fist. But what scared me most was the pressure to turn out something appealing. You can look at it two ways: Each blank sheet of paper is an unrealized image waiting to be torn to shreds or it's your masterpiece. I approach every piece of paper as something that needs to submit to my will. It will be good—or what's the point of the exercise?

I added to my terror by choosing a medium that strikes fear into the most accomplished artists: watercolor. No mark can be eradicated. You cannot scrape, erase, or distract the viewer. Like a diary, it records your every ill-conceived, half-baked idea.

In art school we would be asked to draw without letting our eyes leave the subject, or in the dark, or using our non-dominant hand,. These were attempts to get us to let go of preconceived notions of how an egg, say, should look. They were supposed to encourage us to let go of tested and approved methods. They were supposed to free our creativity. They were—laughable. Or so I thought.

Now, twenty years later, I was entertaining the idea that my formerly untalented left hand might produce a decent drawing rather than a disposable doodle. The evidence arrayed against this idea was formidable. To this day, I cannot adjust to writing with my left hand. If I could barely fashion a readable word, what hope was there that I could wield a paintbrush any more skillfully?

My first attempts were weak artistically and crippling emotionally. By now I have gained some distance, but then I was drowning in self pity, which only made drawing more difficult. Through obstinacy, I persisted. Now, years later, I've tallied the results and found some interesting truths.

I attend a Tuesday evening sketch group. The longest poses last under thirty minutes, so there isn't time to turn out a finished drawing. Even so, I have begun to adopt a very casual posture to the process of drawing.

I no longer expect masterpieces. I have embraced the idea that sometimes-the-magic-works-sometimes-it-doesn't. This makes me more experimental, and more importantly, undisturbed when I produce a poor image. Maybe loosing valuable body parts helps you to adopt a cavalier attitude toward something as frivolous as painted images.

What I have also discovered is I draw just as well with my left hand as I ever did with my right. I have the same color sense, I have retained my passion for textured surfaces, and I still have trouble rendering hands and feet. But what I also realize is that when I paint, it is the only time I completely forget about what I've lost. My attention is centered entirely on what I am doing and, incredibly, it is no more difficult than it was before.

I completely loose my sense of self when I am drawing. In a way, it's not surprising. I have always parted freely with my sketches, mostly, I think, because unlike other artists, my ego is not very involved. I also praise my own work without narcissism. I simply don't think of myself as being a part of the process. It's as if someone who looks remarkably like me were really the artist. I accept the criticism and approval on behalf of someone else, someone who has come to terms with his strengths and inadequacies.

People tell me how brave I am for pursuing these things, given my handicap. They insist that if they had to work with the same disadvantages, they would just sit at home and do nothing. That's an attitude I don't understand. For me, art was an integral part of myself. I had to get it back.

: PAINTINGS & TEXT© Steven Sickles 1999


still attends his sketch group.