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On recovery, vulnerability and ritual: An exhibit in white

A bodysurfing accident and the ensuing months of struggle to regain movement are the inspiration for Matthew Wetschler’s new exhibit of paintings at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge at Stanford.

- By Susan Coppa

Documenta, an exhibit of artwork by Mattthew Wetschler, is on view at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.
Susan Coppa

In November of 2017, artist and physician Matthew Wetschler, MD, was bodysurfing at Ocean Beach in San Francisco when a wave drove him headfirst into the ocean floor, breaking his neck and leaving him partially paralyzed. He was spotted and dragged onto the beach before drowning. A vacationing nurse helped resuscitate him.

Wetschler was transported to Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, where he was the first person in the United States to receive a post-experimental treatment focused on maintaining sufficient blood flow within the spinal cord.

That accident and the ensuing months of struggle to ultimately regain movement serve as the inspiration for Wetschler’s new exhibit of paintings, Documenta, now on display at the School of Medicine’s Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.

Wetschler, who completed a residency in emergency medicine at Stanford before the accident, created all of the works in the exhibit in the past year, and they are directly inspired by his accident and the recovery process. They are also exclusively a product of ritual. Wetschler, who still experiences loss of fine-motor coordination in his hands, began each piece with a ritual of repetition that used positioning and stress to create weakness in his hands and arms. Then he painted.

What arrived on the canvas was a direct product of that physical vulnerability in brush strokes and movement. Wetschler views the ritual itself as the art; he said he felt color would detract from the viewer’s comprehension of the ritual.

The location of the exhibition in the School of Medicine also becomes part of the viewer experience.

“There is something cyclical about showing [at the School of Medicine],” he said. “This is an expression of my own healing in the place I learned to become a healer. It becomes a statement of how that is an active process for all of us. Sometimes we are the healer, and sometimes we need to be healed.”

The first time Wetschler returned to the site of his accident, he brought a canvas, but he did not start painting immediately. Instead, he drew a large circle in the sand, walked the 200-foot perimeter as a ritual, then went into the frigid ocean. He repeated this circle-walk and ocean dip 13 times to induce hypothermia and weakness, but surprisingly, he found his final laps were his strongest. He then hurled his body, sand and all, onto a paint-covered canvas. The work in the exhibit titledReentryis the result.

“My accident was a manifestation of an individual encountering the chaos of world and his own frailty,” he said. “We aren’t in control. Things can change at any moment. In emergency medicine, we are exposed to people’s vulnerabilities. That requires a certain constitution to face every day and still remain emotionally whole. … The antidote is adopting the perspective that crazy things can happen, and we will always rise to the challenge. Hopefully I’m living proof that even if we break ourselves in some way, we can still move forward. Within us is a deep well of capacity we underestimate. There is strength in acknowledging vulnerability and still persisting.”

Update: Wetschler returned to practicing medicine in March of 2019.

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2022 ISSUE 1

Understanding the world within us

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