Artist Fay Ballard is leading a weekly creative workshop with dialysis patients at Hammersmith Hospital. She is writing a weekly blog in response to her experiences.
Michael was sitting in bed strapped to his machine and absorbed in painting when I arrived this morning. Using a long sable brush found at home, he was creating a striking composition of horizontal bands in earthy, muted colours to suggest a landscape of far distant mountains. Placed on his table was a plastic drinking cup holding water for his brush as well as the black and white photocopy of a highland mountain scene we’d found on the internet a few weeks ago. We looked at his painting and Michael showed me a couple of old watercolour magazines he’d come across at home. Swapping the plastic cup for a larger glass jar, he welcomed the book on Turner’s travels to the Alps, marked at page displaying the landscape he’d chosen last week.
Josephine was awake in bed and eager to find an image of ‘San Giovanni Battista’, St. John the Baptist, from ‘The Queen of Heaven’, the book of old master paintings of the Virgin Mary which we’d looked through a few weeks ago. I held the book and turned the pages slowly. She took her time, pausing over each image. I asked who was Mater Dolorosa, the subject of a painting by Dieric Bouts and she replied, ‘Our Lady of Sorrows, the Sorrowful Mother’, one of the seven lives of the Virgin Mary. Josephine’s eyes scanned each work, and she whispered ‘beautiful’ as the pages were turned: Botticelli, Raphael, Bellini, Titian, Piero Della Francesca, El Greco, Durer. I looked up in silence at her, aware of the deep personal significance that St. John might hold. For a few minutes, time seemed to stop still and we entered another world, perhaps a sacred space, bonded by our search for St John. Closing the book and back to the hurly-burly of life, I went off to scan three colour images to hang in her kitchen by Francesco di Stefano Pesellino, Raphael and Correggio.
Across the ward, Maura, the Head Nurse, was waving enthusiastically a large copy of Irving’s completed text-based art. She was going to display a copy in the staff room. The piece was causing quite a discussion amongst the nurses and I was keen to see it. Entitled ‘Is there hope?’, Irving had written a message for his granddaughter, Hadassah, which she had decorated with crayons and ink. The text was coloured softly with colours of the rainbow and surrounded by a black barbed wire fence drawn in ink. Two butterflies were flying freely beyond the fence. They had black bodies and their colourful wings were marked by soot. Beautiful but also menacing. She had evoked the duality of the human condition: of life and death, of goodness and evil.
I found Irving reading on his bed and offered my appreciation which he accepted with grace and modesty.
Michael had completed his second painting, inspired by Turner’s watercolour. Here was a delicate, misty landscape of subtle colour and light. He laughed when I suggested he had a natural facility, rejecting the suggestion in his self-effacing manner. Michael asked if I’d seen Irving’s work and after a discussion, we chatted about our week. We talked about William Wilberforce, the English politician and leader of the movement to eradicate the slave trade.
I was keen to strike up a conversation with a young woman but she was still asleep and made a mental note to introduce myself next week.
It was alredy lunchtime and the drivers were arriving to take patients home. One of the drivers, Muhammad, helped me hang Irving’s framed work in the waiting area and started a conversation about the text. He, too, was philosophical believing in the duality of the human condition and in our ready propensity to repeat the mistakes of our forebears. I introduced him to Irving and they talked.
As I walked back along the path behind Wormwood Scrubs to the tube, I reflected on my morning with Irving, Josephine and Michael. The strength of their human spirit to find goodness in adversity, to embrace creativity in the midst of serious illness humbled me.