At the funeral of a beloved friend and colleague, I was overwhelmed by the response of my co-workers in the arts, delighted to see me back on two feet again following my stroke, and as far as they could tell, looking remarkably well and healthy. But in truth, as we stood outside the chapel in Glasnevin cemetery, they were only seeing the tip of the iceberg I had become. A translucent, sharp tip of optimism, illuminated by the pale wintery sun; belying the cold, remote, and disconnected mass of my new self – holed below the water line, and listing alarmingly to the left!
Some days I cannot fix my mind on anything. This disconnectedness in my head neutralizes all stimuli that constantly clamour for attention, resulting in unwelcome and uncontrollable periods of ennui. Whilst enduring this mental imposition, my thought process and physical movements are so guarded and sluggish, I feel I am literally under water. But sadly, not suspended in this life-giving element that refreshes and cleanses, but a parallel one that is viscous, with a tendency to pull me sideways and down, into its opaque and limitless depths.
Returning (reluctantly) to the day of the funeral, I was beset on all sides, with the inevitable question – when would I be back at my drawing board? Nonplussed by my co-workers enthusiasm to nail down a day, a month or even a year for my return to the artistic fold of stage design, while this oft repeated question reinforced their goodwill, it placed me under enormous pressure. Subsequently, my reply “I have absolutely no idea!” came as a surprise and somewhat of a shock – and not only to myself. You see, this question had been festering away in my brain – or that section of it firing on whatever cylinders I had left – since returning home from three months in hospital and rehab. My answer of course, was an unpalatable but unavoidable truth – and now I had said it out loud. But it also presented me with a thought-provoking conundrum. If eventually I returned to my cherished profession1 which held me in thrall for over four decades – would I be able to mind myself during the days of hesitant light in which I now languished?
Looking back across the decades – with my hand on my heart – I can honestly say, I rarely experienced a ‘no ideas’ phase in my career, nor did I succumb – as far as I can recall – to hesitancy when faced with the exacting demands of my profession; prior to the stroke, I led a vigorous and single-minded life, that many people would view as charmed. My career took me from the North American continent to the Antipodes and there were many memorable landfalls along the way; Ireland being one. From my first arrival, I felt welcomed, and after designing several plays in Dublin, when a permanent design post was offered, I was only too happy to accept, and make the city my home. On the roads I travelled, I met many fascinating and life-affirming people, in the performing arts, and as fellow travellers – both literally and metaphorically; I considered myself especially blessed.
When, due to the stroke, my gleaming road forward morphed into a grey cul-de-sac, one of the few saving graces was to encounter – for the first time – the Irish priest, poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue, since when, he has become a steadfast and inspiring companion. During the years spent recalibrating my life, his eloquent and profound words have offered an astute psychological road map for survival in an anxiety ridden, post-stroke world.
May you find the wisdom to listen to your illness:
Ask it why it came? Why it chose your friendship?
Where it wants to take you? What it wants you to know?2
In August 2019, following my discharge from the MISA3 wing in Dublin’s St James’s Hospital, I took some valuable advice – little knowing at the time, how valuable – and joined a stroke support group run by the Irish Heart Foundation. My hope was to engage with fellow stroke survivors, who were in various stages of recovery: to bond, swap experiences, and seek advice. But many felt so comfortable with their reduced capabilities – ingrained over the years – that key topics were not up for discussion, whilst other survivors were physically and mentally challenged, in ways precluding engagement; it was an eye-opening and sobering experience.
Just as I was debating whether joining this support group was a wise decision, a visit from June Shannon, the Digital Editor at the Irish Heart Foundation, provided an unexpected – and much needed – shot in the arm. She asked how I was finding the meetings. Being in a somewhat bleak frame of mind, I voiced my doubts, before adding casually that there were days when I seriously considered writing about my own gruelling stroke experiences (should anyone be interested?). To my surprise, June was more than interested, and within days, urged me to tell my story – warts and all. Offering unstinting support during the several months it took to recollect, research, and then write a fly on the wall account of my hospital sojourn, and the ‘new normal’ life at home, Dispatches from the Dark Side of the Moon4 was published online in June 2020. I felt euphoric; in one fell swoop, motivation had returned, and I was firing on replenished cylinders.
Throughout my career – and life in general – motivation was an attribute that had never been in short supply; its sudden loss, due to the stroke, felt akin to the severance of a major limb. When finally back home, during the early days, I recall viewing my disconsolate drawing board – devoid of creative signs – with a heavy heart. “One day,” I would promise, “one day…. just you wait and see.” But, in my heart of hearts, I sensed the likelihood of our bonding creatively any time in the future – near or far – was nothing more than wishful thinking; how mistaken I was!
Dispatches received such positive feedback, a few weeks later, June asked me to submit ideas – as and when I felt inclined – for further stroke-related articles; giving me carte blanche. Sensing I was on a roll, and moving in an entirely unforeseen direction, I accepted her invitation, and to date, I have written a further six articles.5 Following the publication in October 2021 of my fourth, out of the blue – with immaculate timing – the Irish Heart Foundation announced the Stroke of HeART competition to design its annual Christmas card.
Could I / Should I / Would I be tempted? Considering I had not picked up a pencil, crayon or paintbrush for more than three years, whilst mulling over my response, I gave little thought to my lack of manual dexterity. As a right-handed artist, the one positive aspect of my stroke is that fortune smiled on me; thus enabling the left side of my body to bear the brunt. Though I walk again unaided, at times my left leg has a mind of its own, so I must constantly watch my step. Happily, my left arm is more compliant, but, while the hand can grip, it can neither hold securely, nor manipulate adroitly; coping with these afflictions, plus a head that is perpetually ‘lost in space’ makes for a nerve-racking existence. All things considered, my question now was, if I have a functioning right hand, but an AWOL left hand, could I forge them into a stable partnership, and return to creativity? John O’Donohue – prescient as ever – guided me through a fog of doubt, towards a light that – to my relief – was far from hesitant.
May you learn to use this illness
As a lantern to illuminate
The new qualities that will emerge in you.6
And so, trusting his unerring faith in the individual’s ability to overcome adversity, and flourish, I took up the challenge.
Perhaps post-stroke, my diverse artistic skills – honed over the decades – had recuperated and were ready to take centre stage again?
If so, I had less than a month to find out!
Firstly a confession, Christmas and I have seldom been the best of friends. So the thought – let alone the challenge – of designing a card for this predictable season of sentiment and excess, didn’t initially fill me with joy. Nevertheless, thinking about its ability to conjure wonder and delight in children, I searched exhaustively for a striking image, synonymous with the so called ‘festive spirit’. Sixteen years ago, designing a contemporary Irish version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker for CoisCeim Dance Theatre – though a quirky and eye-catching production – I recall wishing it had remained at home, in late 19th century Russia.
More years ago than I care to remember, on a theatre workers trip to Moscow and Saint Petersburg, I became acquainted with the work of illustrator and stage designer Ivan Bilibin. His major works are based on Russian myths, legends and fairytales, depicting colourful and exotic characters in romantic, mystical and epic locales; framed within decorative borders of folkloric motifs, they are best described as enchanting. My thinking was, perhaps I could borrow Bilibin’s style as a template, and apply it to a full-blooded image of the Nutcracker in his soldier’s uniform; a far cry from his pared back look in the CoisCeim production, he would be the centrepiece of the card, and maybe, revisiting this costume design again would be fun?
Keen to explore my capabilities – yet uncertain of what was achievable – I anticipated a design entailing broad strokes and minimal details; for flexibility and ease, I decided to work on a more gargantuan scale, so for Nutcracker, chose A2 paper, rather than my usual A3 or A4. With my research done, and a slew of rough sketches scattered across a happy drawing board, my thoughts turned to other matters.
That the media would be mixed was a foregone conclusion. My design office, studio, room – call it what you will – housed an Aladdin’s cave of art materials, ranging from coloured crayons, inks, pastels and felt tipped pens, to gouache, acrylic and watercolour paints; a white Tippex correction pen was invaluable in the heat of several moments, and I decided to have no preconceptions, so as the design evolved, free rein would be given to all media.
And there the positivity ended, because it was time to confront the looming spectre of ataxia, and have a word with my recalcitrant left hand. Seriously compromising muscle control and coordination – despite daily hand exercises – ataxia dominates and agitates my life. The more pressure I apply to the hand, the more it jerks away – as if to say ‘I am having none of this!’ So, holding long steel rulers and set squares in place for a linear design featuring geometric forms, perspective and frames, was initially a nightmare; then I discovered a trick. By applying pressure with just four fingers and placing my thumb beneath the paper and the one-inch thickness of the drawing board, my hand became a veritable clamp; now I could even draw a grid with some degree of accuracy.
Did I mention fun earlier? Since my stroke, this was a word I thought to have eliminated from my vocabulary, but as I worked on the Nutcracker design – feeling in control and creative again – yes, I had fun, and to my utter amazement was rewarded by winning a first prize.
Hot on the heels of this surprising and energizing result, I had scarcely paused for breath, before Martina Greene, the National Volunteer Manager at the Irish Heart Foundation, asked if there were any other HeART cards I might like to design? (Was I having intimations of déjà vu?) Clearly in need of a fresh pair of eyes – and by far the most intriguing of card themes – I chose Valentine’s and St Patrick’s Day. Though time was short – I was already committed to my fifth stroke-related article – despite clashing deadlines, I couldn’t let this opportunity pass, and once again John O’Donohue offered a perceptive viewpoint to spur me on.
In out-of-the-way places of the heart,
Where your thoughts never think to wander,
This beginning has been quietly forming,
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.7
Queen Elizabeth I of England had a thorny relationship with Ireland – to put it mildly – so alarm bells rang the moment I had the notion of a Valentine’s Day card featuring a Queen of Hearts, based on Gloriana herself. Anxious not to offend Irish sensibilities, I decided to discuss my idea with the Irish Heart Foundation first, but to my surprise, no one appeared the least bit concerned. Nevertheless, erring on the side of caution, her Majesty veered closer in spirit to that of a pantomime dame – though maintaining the Tudorbethan overtones; besides, I wanted the image to be a world away from the grotesque harridan as depicted by Sir John Tenniel in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The card doubled for a charity marathon, and the image of her Majesty’s skirt as theatre curtains, revealing a loyal courtier crashing through the finishing tape – a frivolous last-minute idea – put a rare smile on my face. The familiar looking clouds were in homage to the Belgian surrealist René Magritte.
THE BLESSED PÁDRAIG
A firmly held belief is that Saint Patrick walked Ireland’s western shores – and tended his flocks – during the mid 5th century AD, and my avowed aim was to circumnavigate the oceans of kitsch and sentimental whimsy that have distorted his persona as a man of piety and forbearance. I wanted to return to a more ascetic image; free of the often lurid – and wildly anachronistic – green and gold shamrock strewn vestments, in which he is usually adorned – and adored. My starting point for Himself was a wooden Santos from Puerto Rico of Raymondo Nonnatus, whilst Harry Clarke’s awe-inspiring stained-glass designs gave me the idea of an ecclesiastical window as a framing device. In terms of the Irish landscape, featuring Croagh Patrick in County Mayo felt obligatory, and for an image of pre-Christian Ireland, I chose the Neolithic Poulnabrone Dolmen in the Burren, County Clare. Rough stones and the saint’s bare feet referenced pilgrims on the holy mountain, and the manifestations of the Celtic Holy Trinity knot – with a heart at its centre – added an apt reverential and mystical aura.
THE CHILDREN OF PRAGUE & OUR LADY FRIDA
Creativity to a deadline brings untold pressures – stroke or no stroke – so after designing three HeART cards in a row, I felt entitled to abandon my drawing board for a few months. But, by the summer of 2022, my second wind was still in evidence; accordingly, I began work on a new design / illustration – strictly for my own fulfilment. The subject matter, a legendary statue (and the unique city where it can be found) had intrigued me since boyhood; the reason being that my father Karel was Czech. I grew up in a cottage that was a treasury of paintings, books, music and artifacts from his – sorely missed – homeland, and during ensuing decades, visited the Czech Republic many times; falling in love inevitably, with Prague, its capital city.
In 1947, my English mother Sheila traversed the cobbled streets of Malá Strana – the lesser town – with me snug in the womb; thus allowing me to boast in later years that once I was ‘an unborn child in Prague.’ Now, turning my attention to the statue of the real Child of Prague – no stranger to Irish nuptials – a nostalgic idea was to feature myself as a child in the illustration, embraced by the statue’s towering, benevolent form. But then, considering the brutal persecution of the Czechs, by first the Nazis and later the Russians, this felt too egotistical; I opted instead for a second child that was symbolic – a haunted waif and survivor of those rolling decades of subjugation and misery. The vista of Prague is an amalgam of accurate architectural details, and my theatrical imagination – the latter fired up by a lifetime’s familiarity with every nook and cranny of this meandering and mesmerizing city.
Earlier I mentioned memorable landfalls; Mexico certainly ranks as one – having visited on three occasions. Colourful, flamboyant and tantalizing are all adjectives that not only describe the country, but also the character and style of one of its leading 20th century artists, Frida Kahlo. Achieving secular sainthood, Frida was a prime example of a creative spirit, refusing to be crushed by severe and debilitating ill health. My curiosity about her life and art was first piqued by Barbara Kingsolver’s brilliant novel The Lacuna, featuring an ebullient Frida, and her boisterous artist husband Diego Rivera. Months later, whilst reading Hayden Herrera’s – often harrowing – Frida biography, and dipping in and out of a ravishingly illustrated Mexican volume about Our Lady of Guadalupe, I had a light bulb moment.
Frida as Our Lady!
Would this be a marriage made in heaven – or on the drawing board?
There was only one way to find out – assuming I had enough second wind left?
And, as the photo of my drawing board testifies – I certainly did!
Despite my literary and artistic output since my stroke, the moment I take my eye off the creative ball, disconnectedness resurfaces, my optimism wanes, and I am subjected to a physiological malaise.
John O’Donohue’s words strike right to the heart of the matter.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light8
My stroke was the wire brush – viciously applied – to eradicate all
traces of my self, and my confident place in the world. Failing to
extinguish my light, it bequeathed a devastating hesitancy to that
What has been lost will never be regained.
This fact I accept, and try to face the future with a good grace,
recalling past glories, with heartfelt gratitude,
whilst striving to perfect those skills remaining.
Life does not have the benefit of a dress rehearsal.
I made my first entrance in 1948,
yet despite tectonic plates shifting within,
I am still on stage.
Somewhere nearby, there must be an exit.
But, for the moment, it waits patiently to reveal itself.
1. Irish Theatrescapes, Joe Vaněk, 34 designs for new Irish plays, adapted European plays and Irish classics (2015: Gandon Editions)
2. John O’Donohue (1956 – 2008). ‘For a Friend, on the Arrival of Illness,’ Benedictus: A Book of Blessings (2007: Bantam Press).
3. Mercer’s Institute for Successful Ageing
4. Dispatches from the Dark Side of the Moon, June 2020: https://irishheart.ie/news/dispatches-from-the-dark-side-of-the-moon-a-story-of-stroke-survival/
5. Care Free, October 2020: https://irishheart.ie/news/care-free-flying-solo-under-the-covid-cloud/
Life on a Plateau, March 2021: https://irishheart.ie/news/life-on-a-plateau/
Covid – Beneath the Long Shadow, October 2021: https://irishheart.ie/news/covid-beneath-the-long-shadow/
Minding My Self, April 2022: https://irishheart.ie/news/minding-my-self/
Taking Stock but Not Standing Still, October 2022: https://irishheart.ie/news/my-stroke-experience-taking-stock-but-not-standing-still/
Prayer Pose, March 2023: https://irishheart.ie/news/prayer-pose/
6. ‘For a Friend, on the Arrival of Illness’.
7. ‘For a New Beginning,’ Benedictus: A Book of Blessings.
8. ‘For the break-up of a relationship,’ Benedictus: A Book of Blessings.
Joe Vaněk - Biography
From 1994 – 1997, Joe was Director of Design for Dublin’s Abbey Theatre.
From 2006 – 2008, he was the Design Associate for the Wexford Festival Opera.
He is principally known for his designs of the later plays by Brian Friel. In 1992, his designs for Dancing at Lughnasa on Broadway received Tony Award Nominations for set and costumes, as well as a Drama Desk Award Nomination for set. He is also the recipient of several set and costume design Awards and Nominations from the Irish Times Theatre Awards (2001, 2005, 2006, 2012).
Joe has designed plays, opera, ballet and contemporary dance not only in Ireland and the UK, but internationally, in the USA, Canada, Australia, Denmark and The Netherlands.
His designs have been exhibited at exhibitions in London (1983, 1987), Prague (1991, 2007), Toronto (2005) and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (2004).
Joe’s book Irish Theatrescapes received the following reviews:
A thing of beauty and endlessly fascinating in itself; it is also a treasure trove of information, beautifully delivered. THE SUNDAY INDEPENDENT
The great triumph of the book is its ability to recreate the ephemeral moment of theatre. CULTURE, THE SUNDAY TIMES.
As well as being beautifully illustrated, it succeeds as a memoir and anthology, and as an outstanding act of theatre criticism. THE IRISH TIMES
Joe Vaněk … will almost certainly be viewed as the leading designer in Ireland during this period (1984 – 2012). IRISH ARTS REVIEW