One night, in Feb 2020 I asked one of my friends, a staff nurse at NNUH if she’d be my guinea-pig and let me paint her portrait? I wanted to do a series of hospital portraits and felt a bit nervous about asking folk, because it seems a bit of a random ask. Most folk don’t know I’ve been painting for years, and only know me as a doctor, and there is a shyness you feel about sharing something creative.
So I said to Lisa that I wanted to do portraits to lift morale. It was not about the patients but about the staff. We spend our lives in an occupation that we never have a photographic record of. We wouldn’t be taking photos of what we do all day due to confidentiality, and yet these scenes are so familiar to us.
I started to ask folk in the coffee room at work if I could just nip in while they were doing something with a patient, and take a quick photo of them at work. It seemed a bit crazy, nobody had seen my work, they had no idea what I was up to, and were saying an uncertain ‘yes’ out of their good nature, rather than from my confidence to convince them to indulge my artistic passion. For all they knew it could have been awful. We got verbal consent from patients if they minded me taking a photo of my colleague at work with the odd arm or leg in the background.
I had done only 2-3 portraits when Covid19 Lockdown struck. Case numbers were rising exponentially, we were all suddenly wearing PPE. There were parallel emergency departments where possible Covid or Non-Covid patients were streamed. GP practices were closed to face-to-face consultations and tents were erected outside. Our hospital teams were muddled and mixed. We came into work not knowing where we would be sent each time. Colleagues were much missed because they were shielding and unable to come to work.
I continued taking my photos, grabbing people I knew and those I didn’t. There were amused and puzzled smiles from people that were too tired to say no, and those that wanted something fun to distract them from the daily grind. I started coming to work and my colleagues would ask if I could paint them, or strangers would tell me how much they’d liked the last image I’d posted on social media. Colleagues who were isolating at home were commenting about how lovely it was to see the familiar faces and clinical environments in my paintings, and it made them feel part of something familiar. Those who were usually too shy would hang around in an unusual way, and chat, and eventually ask if they could be painted. It seemed urgent and important to just say yes to everyone.
A friend of 30-plus years contacted me from South Wales, and within the space of a week I was accepting photos from the Tredegar / Abergavenny area. The home of Aneurin Bevan, the dreamer who started the NHS.
Covid was restricting in some ways but opening more doors than I could walk through. Every week I painted as many as I could. Mornings off, days off. My family were now studying/working at home. I got banished to the breakfast bar with my art supplies. I started looking at my diary with the eyes of somebody who needed to find time to paint. My online purchases were of pigments and brushes, planning to be patient with delayed delivery times from art suppliers.
Fast forward to the current week, and I have painted almost 50 portraits, I have a waiting list of promises both in Norfolk and South Wales. My social media explodes into life when I post each next painting. People message, asking if I am going to put a book together, can they buy one, am I going to exhibit in Norfolk, in South Wales, and when. These things will come in time.
I’m still working full time as a GP in the ED at NNUH and in practices in Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. Somehow I make the time to paint portraits and keep up my commitment as a producer for TheCurbsiders Internal Medicine Podcast too.
Tomorrow I will be a GP again for several days. At the weekend I will be somewhere in the Emergency Department. When I drive to work, I have to check my nails for paint. My goal is not to over promise or underdeliver as a doctor, nor as an artist and friend.