Steve Parker’s first inkling something was wrong came when he dreamed of a red, four-cylinder airplane. It was leaking oil and smoke was pouring from the engine. In the dream, “It took off and immediately crashed. I woke up and said, ‘I have heart trouble,’ ” the tall, lean clinical psychologist said.
From that moment forward, Parker, 58, underwent a series of what he described as traumatic episodes, including dealing with medical professionals who initially found nothing wrong, a heart attack, multiple surgeries and recoveries.
His ordeal is not different from others who have struggled to recover from a serious illness. What is unusual is Parker’s approach to his healing, and his courage to share publicly what is often only spoken about with one’s closest friends, if at all.
The result is an exhibit titled, “Healing after a Heart Attack: Images of the Psyche,” which includes 40 images, commentaries and quotations. They are on exhibit at the Spring Street Gallery in Saratoga Springs through March 29 but can also be viewed online at www.heartak.com.
Parker’s story is about seeking meaning and purpose. His journey led him through a variety of creative outlets. In early March, Parker talked to patrons of the Spring Street Gallery about how he undertook three artistic projects over the course of seven years, each in response to a new health crisis. The first was the building of a cave, the second the creation of a labyrinth and the third the creation of a blog that evolved into 40 drawings with commentary on how the heart attack affected every aspect of his life. These drawings and commentaries make up the exhibit.
As you read the words and gaze at the simple yet evocative drawings, you come to appreciate what Parker has gone through. You can’t help but relate his life experiences to emotional experiences of your own. As you read, your impatient self may want to skip ahead, but if you do, you will find yourself returning to the beginning and reading each in sequence because you don’t want to miss any part of this person’s journey. It is not just a recounting of experiences and struggles. It is reflective, deeply personal and, at times, peppered with humor.
Leaving no stone unturned, the Alaska resident, who is the brother of Saratoga Springs artist Anne Diggory, followed his intuition, garnered insights from his dreams and explored the psychological, physical and spiritual aspects of his life-threatening illness. At the gallery, new undertakings by Diggory that show her brother in his surroundings in Alaska and fresh landscapes were also on view.
How the exhibit evolved
Parker said he used his drawings to help guide his thoughts, which at various times are frightened, contemplative, hopeful or peaceful. What rings constant throughout is his honesty and sincerity. He drew pictures right after the heart attack; the blog came later. But it was his blog that alerted his sister to the depth of his illness.
She told those who had gathered at the exhibit’s opening reception that when she was first notified that Steve was having heart trouble, she felt removed from the experience. “He was far away. I didn’t really understand what he was going through. Then I read the blog and I really understood and I realized that I wasn’t paying attention,” she said.
The blog begins: “A heart attack is a deeply wounding event. I have been struggling with this never-ending wound for more than a year, and still it haunts me by the hour. A heart attack is also a deeply isolating event. Others act as if their lives will go on forever, but can I participate in this charade, knowing deeply and irrevocably that any moment could be my last one?” Next to the words is Pierre Puget’s image of the mythical centaur Chiron, who had a wounded knee that would not heal.
Diggory said after reading this entry, she made plans to go to her brother’s home outside of Fairbanks. Together the siblings worked: Anne on a series of paintings and mixed media photography which are in the exhibit.
While the exhibit is the most current endeavor, it is the third of his artistic undertakings. The first was the building, stone by stone, of an underground cave.
He explained in the commentary on his fourth artwork:
“For months after the stent was implanted I felt stunned and out of sorts, not knowing what to do with my life — or how much life I had left. I felt only half in this world and half in some ethereal, other-worldly place.” He impulsively decided to build a cave. “I wanted a quiet, meditative place where I could retreat,” he stated simply.
“It was close to the craziest thing I had ever done in my life, and it also felt like exactly the right thing to do,” he said. The building of “this sacred space brought me back to the concrete world; being in the cave is both literally and figuratively a very grounding experience.”
These words are accompanied by an image of carefully stacked stones, and layer upon layer of brick.
In retrospect, he told the gallery’s audience, the cave’s construction was part of his physical recovery to reconnect with the earth. Next came the labyrinth, a spiritual exploration.
“Have you ever had the experience of walking a labyrinth?” he asked the audience. “You know where you are going to get. You are going to get to the middle. It is the journey to get there that is what is exciting.”
He had visited a labyrinth at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral after a health crisis that resulted in the placement of a second stent. He wrote about the experience in the sixth artwork: “I had been very skeptical of such New Age California fads, and I was very pleasantly surprised to find that this symbolic walk was a deep and comforting experience. Somehow, all the walking and turning in the labyrinth changed my mental state, and I found myself quite thoughtful and grateful,” he wrote.
He decided to build one in his backyard and did. “No matter how many times I walk this northern labyrinth, I always get a sense of relief and perspective when I reach the center,” he wrote.
While the labyrinth was part of his spiritual healing, Parker was still struggling.
He noted that friends and families were always supportive during the immediate crises. However, as the weeks went by, and he sounded fine, there would be fewer and fewer phone calls and shows of support.
“It somehow occurred to me that it might help to draw — or at least try to draw — images of the experiences I was going through,” he said. Using a computer-assisted program he began to draw whatever came into his mind.
The drawings were reflections of the state of his psychological body, in the same way that dreams are images of the state of one’s psyche, he wrote in one of his artworks.
Last year, he decided to add another dimension to his creative process and began the blog. His goal was to express how the heart attack had affected him. “I didn’t know where I was going with it. But I’ve learned to trust and just do it,” he said.
As he wrote, drew and thought about his experiences “a profound spiritual awareness slowly emerged, changing my perception of myself and of the world around me,” he wrote. “When I began the first blog, I had no idea where it would lead. I knew only that I wanted to work slowly and reflectively through the drawings I had done after the heart attack. I drew these images as a means of emotional expression and relief,” reads the commentary in the last artwork, an image of an egg surrounded by an explosion of red, then yellow, green, blue and deep dark blue.
“I had no idea, at the time, that they were also illustrating an ancient underlying alchemical process of transformation. I have been amazed by the journey,” the commentary continued.
Making the invisible visible
“Art engages you in the real world. It makes visible the invisible. That is what I saw that art did for him. Healing is not just physical. The mind plays an important role in healing,” Diggory said at the exhibit.
The show, which was co-sponsored by Saratoga Vital Aging, is as much about aging and creativity as it is about art. Parker acknowledged how he felt betrayed by his body when he had the heart attack.
“There isn’t a lot of recognition within the medical community of how important the psyche is,” he said, noting that he still at times copes with anxiety and depression. But through his experiences, he added “I am a lot stronger. Building the cave helped me physically. Creating the labyrinth helped me spiritually, and the blog helped me cognitively.”
It has also changed the focus of his work as a psychologist. Parker’s practice now specializes in working with chronically ill people.
“It has transformed my life,” he said, adding that his attention is now focused on deeper issues of meaning and purpose and values.