Jaki McElroy is obsessed with brains – and for good reason. The artist known for her vibrant sketches and buoyant caricatures had to focus a lot of energy to regain use of her mind after she suffered a stoke late last spring. For months, she was unable to speak or write. Though some of her memories have yet to return, drawing was one of the first instincts to resurface.
“I had a subdural hematoma and a stroke. I was in a coma for two weeks and in the hospital for three months,” said McElroy, 35. “I could do nothing for months. It took a lot of physical therapy and a lot of speech therapy to recover. I couldn’t talk very well, but I could still draw and paint, so that’s what I started doing.”
McElroy said that while the incident has changed many aspects of her life, the soul of her art remains intact. Since she started drawing again last October, she’s worked on new pieces every day. A collection of her recent works is on display this month at the Donut Whole. The series of color-pencil drawings is very brain-focused; it features colorful animals, people, and mystical beings whose minds become the visual focal point of the work.
“I’ve been constantly looking at images of my brain on CAT scans and MRIs,” McElroy said, explaining her fixation. “If you have an injury and something like that happens to you, that’s what you have to think about, that’s what you have to focus on, and that’s what you have to pray will get better. It’s changed the whole way I think. I don’t like grocery lists anymore. I draw pictures of the food instead now. If I need to do something, I’ll draw a picture to remind myself of what I need to do. I’ve definitely learned how to be more expressive as an artist.”
The images in this series are fairly supernatural in nature, drawing on mythology and incorporating elements of cultural symbols. They capture the subject’s essence, as well as its likeness. One drawing features a determined woman painting mothers and children, her head open to showcase brain space that emits from orbs within it auras of color lines. Those lines disseminate out and surround her entire body.
Another shows a small boy with large, earnest eyes playing piano on rainbow keys. A treasure chest protrudes from his head, as scales on each side weigh heart vessels. Butterflies, snakes and miniature figures also weave themselves into the series in a manner those familiar with McElroy’s work will recognize.
“I like iconography and mythology,” the Wichita artist said. “It’s very comforting to me. When I was in the hospital, I spent a lot of time alone, and I needed company. I needed to have those ideas to keep me going, and they do.”
While the works in this show are relatively small, most measuring 8½ inches by 11 inches, McElroy plans to upscale them into larger paintings soon. For now, she said, she’s content focusing on being an artist and spending time drawing with her kids – and working after they go to bed.
“I want to draw all of the time,” she said. “I used to just draw during meetings or down times. Now I see everything as a picture, and when I see someone, I see their picture. If I see a boy, for instance, I see his face, his smile, his emotions, and I have this need to bring that out by drawing.”