Abstract Art & Other Such Persons

I watched as my Ethiopian colleague stood looking at a piece of art in the gallery just outside our office. His expression was just as quizzical as mine had been the week before. The centerpiece of the exhibit looked as if the artist had gotten drunk, said, “The hell with it,” and begun slinging fistsful of paint onto the canvas.

“I said to my colleague, “Don’t worry, there’s a story behind it,” at which, he promptly walked around the easel and looked at the back of the canvas. When I explained that “having a story behind it” is simply a figure of speech that means there’s more to a thing than meets the eye,” he dropped his head and laughed at himself.

I knew there was a story behind the painting because the artist had come to the campus and given a talk on his creative process. During his visit, the artist and I ambled through the gallery and stopped in front of the centerpiece. “This one,” I said pointing to the large abstract painting, “what was your inspiration?” And I waited to hear what possibly could’ve inspired such a bold and blinding spectrum. He looked at it, with a sort of nostalgia, and said, “Sunrise.”

Sunrise! With that one word, I had gotten it. I was rendered speechless at the breathtaking beauty that just seconds before had been nothing more than a colorful abstract. With that one-word story, the painting, with its rich colors and random flecks of splintered brilliance, had snapped into crystal-clear focus.

To each other, we, too, are abstractions, pieces of art propped up on easels to be looked upon and marveled at, but we become more than mere abstractions as bits of our stories begin to surface. This is especially true in the art of medicine.  A young man who refuses a brain scan because he fears the Secret Service is altering his brain waves is, at once, an abstraction. But if his one-word story is POW, the abstraction instantly snaps into focus. We might not understand the Secret Service and brain waves, but we are familiar with what it means to be a prisoner of war.

Stifled stories also have consequences. Kim Gledhill, in her essay, “Stark like Alex Katz,” holds in her bosom a story of self-imposed exile, which she is unable to share with the very physician whom she believes has triggered it. Yet one wonders, what is his story, this physician who is uncomfortable with the humanness of the people he has sworn to care for? For Kim and her physician, the losses are incalculable; for in the presence of story, healing might’ve settled like dew upon both of them.

Stories are perpetual and have the power to heal. They provide clarity and recognition. A story can dress an abstraction in a suit and tie, and make it resemble your father. It can take a POW and make him your brother. It can take a perplexed Ethiopian and give him the sun.