"Once his hands stopped working, the drawings made their way out through his eyes. Not drawing was never an option."
When artist Patrick Dean died in May of 2021, he left behind an impossibly large collection of work: sketchbooks, paintings, loose pieces of paper, cardboard, newsprint, a couple of sculptures, and several other things he’d drawn or painted on, usually whatever was closest to him when an idea hit—and those ideas hit frequently. I was one of the lucky ones. I got to watch it happen on multiple occasions. The transition from blank page to fully formed work was amazingly fast. Other cartoonists would often look on in disbelief at the speed that these expressive, fully realized, and (most important) funny pieces seemed to jump out of Patrick’s pen.
It’s no surprise that after he was diagnosed with ALS, the way he chose to let everyone know was by drawing about it. That comic, filled with rage, stubborn determination, and an underlying fateful resignation, is one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to read. The third panel, which shows Patrick standing on a cliff, staring into an abyss, shoulders squared and fists clenched, is forever burned into my mind.
There was never any doubt that Patrick would keep drawing. His work, of course, changed. Patrick used to draw his comics uncommonly small, at almost the same size they were published. As time passed, his work got larger. Figures that used to occupy a panel now took up an entire page. Rather than comics, Patrick concentrated on single figures, which often served as commentaries on the disease that was slowly advancing on him. In an image posted to his Instagram account on April 22, 2019 (just a couple of weeks after his forty-third birthday), he drew himself as a Frankenstein—arms outstretched, long legs bent inward—to represent how he felt walking without a cane. He always had a cane in public, he wrote, “so people don’t think I’m plastered or a mad scientist’s experiment.”
Experimentation, though, would be a recurring theme as Patrick’s ALS progressed. He said right there in the comic about his diagnosis that he would draw as long as he was able, and with the help of his family, he did. A central part of an exhibit of Patrick’s work at the Georgia Museum of Art was a video about this process. The video shows Patrick, then using a wheelchair, creating a piece that was exhibited in the same gallery. His daughter, Eloise, had built a camera mount from a discarded mattress spring so he could wear a phone around his neck and record the drawing as it happened. His wife, Erin, placed a pen in his hand. His linework became scratchier, less bold, but still unmistakably his own. Then, in October of 2020, Patrick posted a new kind of work. The image, white dots on a purple background, was the first Patrick made using eye-tracking technology. This technology, instrumental in allowing those with limited mobility to communicate, wasn’t exactly intended for creating art, but Patrick was determined to make it work that way. As his hands slowly stopped being able to create work, Patrick’s proficiency with eye-tracking software steadily improved. Figures began to emerge, first placed on photographs he’d taken as backgrounds, and then on backgrounds he’d created completely within the device.
The most amazing part of this—and let’s be clear, it’s all pretty amazing—is that the drawings are immediately recognizable as Patrick’s work. In an interview for Inside Edition, Hilary Brown, director of communications for the Georgia Museum of Art and, more important, Patrick’s friend, said, “You start to realize that an artist’s line doesn’t come from their hand. It comes from their brain.” Patrick’s brain was still full of those lines, and they had to get out into the world so badly that he taught himself to draw all over again. Once his hands stopped working, the drawings made their way out through his eyes. Not drawing was never an option.