What happens when an artist treks the inscrutable space between life and death? Covid-19 survivor Guillermo del Valle coped the way he knows best: he drew.
The Chilean visual artist nearly died, having spent 18 days in a Barcelona hospital. Between oxygen doses, del Valle took whatever supplies he could find near his hospital bed and sketched visual fragments of his coronavirus fight.
“It felt like a Pac-Man was eating my insides making it difficult for me to breathe,” said del Valle about his battle with Covid-19 in March 2020 in Spain.
“I had been in the ICU, my immune system was in crisis, my tired body was ready to let go, and my mind was struggling, alert, sleepless,” the 65-year-old said. At one point, sensing he might not live past the night, del Valle emailed goodbye letters to his wife and children.
“He was about to cross over and came back to life,” said Doctor Ivan Pelegrin of del Valle’s illness.
As Covid-19 wards fill to capacity in large swaths of the United States, del Valle’s sketches offer a unique glimpse into the mental battles unfolding amongst ICU patients.
And his art conveys a simple truth: creation persists in the face of this destructive virus.
“The art became a way to look at myself, at my limit, and to register my fragility, the beauty of life, and the natural part of death,” del Valle said.
“The art became a way to look at myself, at my limit, and to register my fragility, the beauty of life, and the natural part of death,” del Valle said. “I think that by stepping outside of myself in this way, it helped me to fight against the virus. It helped the force of the mind prevail over exhaustion and the tendency to surrender to the body.”
The images also served as a conversation, a visual bond between a father and his college-aged son at a time when recovery was uncertain. Del Valle’s son Ismael was completing his university studies in film.
“I photographed [the sketches] and sent them to him via text message so he could use them for a future script for an animated short,” del Valle wrote on his artist website. The work, viewed in sequence, conveys a flip-book quality— field notes for a film.
“A swamp surrounds me, powerless, I find it hard to breathe.” — del Valle
Produced with pencils, stray sheets of paper, and shaky hands, del Valle’s 18 drawings from this period are simple yet poignant — markedly different from his established body of work which features large paintings of surrealist landscapes.
In the hospital sketches pictured above, the hunched over artist is surrounded by red cough particles. The accompanying text reads “I get cough crows.”
Strings of teal take the form of angels showering life support. Bursts of red represent the virus, stealth-like in its prowess yet omnipresent. The red envelops the artist like water, sucking his body below. A single hand reaches unsuccessfully above the waves before succumbing to the clots. The text reads “a swamp surrounds me, powerless, I find it hard to breathe.”
“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick,” Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor in 1978.
Historically speaking, Sontag did a powerful job of challenging victim-blaming for chronic diseases. Whether it be cancer, HIV/AIDS, or tuberculosis, she persistently questioned the notion that one’s psyche or life behaviors served as justification for acquiring a deadly illness. Sontag argued that turning diseases into metaphors shamed, dehumanized, and muzzled patients.
With Sontag’s reduction, however, comes the image of a patient as inert or frozen, subject to the expertise of medical professionals. Guillermo del Valle, on the other hand, by documenting his fight in the trenches, resisted a pure medicalization of his condition.
Del Valle’s illustrations beg the question: in the age of Covid-19, when the virus has no clear warpath, when affliction and intensity appear indiscriminate, are we moving beyond Sontag’s paradigm? Is there an opening, if not a deep need, for metaphor to express a level of experience that science cannot pin down?
At present, people, the world over, are struggling with the question: how do patients and doctors work through the chronic physical and emotional issues following a Covid-19 fight?
On April 3rd, Guillermo del Valle left the Barcelona hospital in a frail state to face a two-week quarantine at home. His recovery process continues today.
“The aftermath is long,” the artist said. “My heart was affected with pericarditis and a little arrhythmia, so I still have to watch it and I can’t swim or ride my bike like before.”
For del Valle, creative acts have helped him confront mortality. Now, the art lives on, serving as an invitation for reflection and support.
Guillermo del Valle’s drawings are “the visual testimony of the struggle of a person who bordered on death at the hands of the coronavirus and was reunited with life,” said artist Werner Thöni, who is presenting del Valle’s works in the Werner Thöni Artspace (WTA) gallery in Barcelona, Spain through July 18, 2020.
Doctor Ivan Pelegrin and Nurses Herrero and Maite, the medical team that saved del Valle’s life, attended the Barcelona opening of the artist’s works. Their reunion marked a small but poignant moment of celebration amid a global pandemic that’s taken countless lives.
Moving forward, del Valle hopes his art not only provides a vehicle for healing but serves as a postcard from beyond, one that encourages young people worldwide to take the virus seriously.
“A young painter friend, walking down the street and observing so many young people running or walking without masks and distances, told me ‘I do not understand. So many of them say they are worried about the world, about global warming, about poverty, revolutionaries, yet they are not able to avoid being transmitters of the virus. They are not able to think of others.’”