I desperately wanted to be an artist, but my mum and dad told me I needed to get a “proper job” so nursing it was. I don’t regret a thing about it – the people I’ve met along the way and the children I’ve looked after.
It’s a real honour to do what I’ve done and I’ve loved it, but after 39 years in paediatric nursing I felt I was ready to stop.
I started scribbling and just kept on scribbling
While I’ve always drawn pictures, it was COVID that led me to start drawing my world at work as a paediatric nurse. Before that it was things from my personal life.
Near the start of the pandemic, I recall thinking how surreal everything was. There has never been anything like this before, I thought. I remember sitting in a COVID debrief meeting about one of our first children to get very sick – it was such an uncertain time.
It was very emotional but we obviously weren’t allowed to touch or hug. I had this scrap of paper on me and everyone thought I was taking notes but what I was actually doing was drawing everyone in the meeting. ‘The Debrief’ is one of my first NHS pictures.
Not long after that I got COVID myself and I found it very distressing. We were all getting this horrid virus and seeing people die from it and I thought: this is the moment in time I need to draw what I’m seeing. I started scribbling and just kept on scribbling.
I see everything in pictures rather than words. Most people like to write things down but not me; I always want to do a picture. I’ve always liked doodling, if I’m stressed, I draw.
Because I didn’t go to art college or have any formal training, I didn’t consider myself an artist and I didn’t really put any value on it, but when I started sharing my drawings, I was overwhelmed by the positive response I’ve had from people.
I would say to people: "I hope you don’t mind but I’ve done a picture of you" and they were so glad I’d done it. I’ve never included a patient, but the staff are very much real.
I didn't want it to be anything glamorous, I just wanted it to be what it was
For me it was important to include all the people working hard in the background who weren’t always shown during COVID – the postal workers, cleaners, pharmacy staff, lab staff – not just doctors and nursing staff in A&E.
One of the pictures is of the emergency team running through the corridor, and I have included the cleaning staff by the side. I didn’t want it be anything pretty or glamourous – there aren’t any big eyelashes in my pictures – I just wanted it to be what it was.
I didn’t want people to forget what the NHS went through, what I saw, and the terror of feeling frightened to go home in case you passed the virus on to your relatives.
I see everything in pictures
The NHS drawings are very much my own style – they aren’t accurate, they are scribbled and very fast – usually in ink and watercolour because I wanted to capture a moment in time. That part is very instinctive.
Now I’m a full-time artist, I do miss nursing but I volunteer with the Bedfordshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust take heART team, so that keeps my toe in. It’s a group of like-minded staff passionate about increasing the availability of the arts in hospitals for patients, visitors and staff so it’s not just bleak corridors.
I’m a firm believer in the need for more art in hospitals. Art can do wonders for how a person feels. Bare walls don’t do anything for anyone.
Art can do wonders for how a person feels
When I worked as a nurse at Addenbrookes, it was full of art and I remember the difference it made. Bedfordshire Hospitals take heART team have recently displayed some of my pictures on the hospital walls at Luton and Dunstable which is the best accolade I could have received in my career as a nurse and wannabe artist.
Find out more about Karen and her work.