Finding purpose

The same passion that was nearly lost after a spinal cord injury, provided Noel Smith with the purpose to keep fighting. Mariska Morris investigates

For as long as he can remember, art has been a part of Noel Smith’s life. He started drawing at the age of five and painting from 10. Later in life, he also took up photography. Both his photography and art focuses on wildlife – something he inherited from his father.

“My father pushed me a lot,” Noel recalls. “He was a wildlife photographer. He inspired the wildlife side of it.” Noel is mostly self-taught. His skill comes from years of practice.

“I was one of those guys who always had a camera with them, taking photos to the annoyance of my family,” he jokingly says.

For most of his life, Noel’s love of art was only a hobby. He planned to pursue it more fully when he retired from his engineering career. However, a devasting accident put all of this at risk when he was forced to relearn how to draw.

Surfing was another passion for Noel since the age of 13. In 2016, Noel went for a surf. The waves weren’t particularly big, but they were strong and fast. One long wave took Noel closer to the shore. He wiped out (fell from his board) on a shallow bank and broke his neck.

“I don’t recall hitting my head. I just remember lying face down in the ocean unable to turn,” Noel remembers. His years of surfing had trained him to hold his breath for quite a while. So, that’s what he did in the hope that someone would come to his aid. This would save his life, because, although Noel doesn’t recall hitting his head on the ground, his fellow surfers heard the impact and crack. A surfer friend reached Noel just in time, lifted his head and pulled him to shore.

Noel was fortunate not to have taken in any water, but what followed was a long wait for an ambulance from Umhlanga. The nearest hospital was Addington across the road which doesn’t have a trauma unit. So, Noel had to wait. Thereafter, he spent five weeks in intensive care followed by three and a half months in hospital for rehabilitation.

The injury to his neck resulted in Noel being an incomplete quadriplegic. Aside from having to get used to the physical changes to his body, he had to come to terms with how his life plan was altered.

“I was looking forward to retirement in a few years and it was almost taken away,” Noel says. He would now have to spend his retirement exercising to regain as much function of his body as possible and relearn his passions.

First, Noel would have to relearn how to draw. He started with a very rudimentary hand splint that assisted with gripping the pens and pencils. While he had always been right-handed, Noel quickly discovered that his right hand was now weaker than his left hand.

“I drew with my right hand. After the accident, I drew using a splint, but my right hand is actually the weaker of the two. I had to learn to draw with my left,” he recalls. Now, he uses his left to do most of the drawing. While he still can’t move in all the desired directions, he can do much more with his left hand.

Secondly, Noel had to find a medium that would accommodate his limited movements. Oil paint was his preferred medium for many years, but proved challenging when Noel returned to art. Oil-based paint needs to be cleaned using turpentine, which was no longer possible.

So, Noel turned to watercolours, but found it tricky. While he would still like to trial gouache, he uses pastel pencils for the time being. Noel also makes use of a tilt table to reach the artwork more easily. It takes him much longer to complete his artwork as he can only work for about two hours at a time. An A3 drawing takes roughly 25 hours.

Although a challenge, returning to art has proven very therapeutic, as Noel explains: “[After an accident], you ask yourself what is your purpose in life. You need to have goals, something to contribute, a purpose. Art and completing a piece gives me such a sense of accomplishment.”

“Find something to concentrate on, something that you love, or you could easily fall into depression. Work on it,” he advises. This purpose of creating art also kept Noel motivated to do the exercises that would improve his hand dexterity.

He also continues to see his physical therapists to help him stay motivated. He urges others: “Keep up occupational and physical therapy or it might be easy to slip back and do nothing.”

He adds that it is worthwhile pursuing even the smallest flicker of improvement. Years later, there are parts of Noel’s body that have recovered somewhat after being completely immobile at the start of his rehabilitation and continue to grow stronger.

While it has been emotionally hard for Noel’s wife to adjust to his disability, it is her support, and that of the rest of his family and friends that helped Noel through his recovery. They visited him frequently while he was rehabilitating and showed pride in his achievements. Noel also urges people to try to remain positive: “No good comes from being negative. Always keep trying.”

His dedication over the past six years has made it possible for Noel to once again create beautiful art. In fact, several of his photos and artworks have recently been purchased for a new hotel in Zambia!

He recently redeveloped his website, re-edited some of his photos and selling them along with his artwork. He has also been documenting his recovery on the website blog. You can read more about his journey and view his art at www.noelsmith.co.za.

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