On an ill-fated day in May 2010 — just five days after introducing herself to the La Jolla community with her first open house artist reception — Fetterolf was swimming at the Coggan Family Aquatic Complex for a master’s workout when she suddenly felt an excruciating pain in her head.
“I had actually just finished a lap. I had touched the end of the pool, fortunately, so I was hanging onto the side, and it just felt like someone had put a sledgehammer through my head,” she said. “Fortunately for me, I did not lose consciousness. I was able to talk and move, so they got me out of the water and called an ambulance.”
After undergoing state-of-the-art neurosurgery at Scripps Memorial Hospital, 20 days of uncertain recovery in the hospital and a follow-up complication that led to a broken wrist and another stint in the hospital, Fetterolf survived neurologically intact, although not without immeasurable trauma.
“I came out of the hospital the second time with metal in my head, metal in my wrist and a pacemaker to keep my heart from [stopping],” she said. “It’s not something the doctors can see or even that close friends can see. It’s not measurable necessarily, but there is trauma to the brain and it takes the brain a long time to recover, if it can recover at all.”
On top of it all, she was to be married in just a few short weeks.
“We had already set the date. We had all these things planned and I set myself to the task of following through with this. I was alive. If I could make it through all this, this was going to happen,” she said. “I really had to bear down and focus on what I could, because when you come out of something like this, your head is not in the same place as it was before.”
Just three weeks after her release from her second hospital stay, Fetterolf was back in her art studio. With a cast on one hand and a pallet knife in the other, she started challenging herself, seeing what she could do in the figurative series where she had left off.
“I was in that recovery process where on the outside, my limbs worked, I functioned fine, but I’m still inside very tender and still fairly traumatized. It was a very hard process,” she said. “I was trying to get back into my figurative series a little bit as best I could.”
What evolved in her artwork, however, was unlike anything she had done before.
“The shift was a little bit slow,” she said. “It wasn’t for another six months, I’d say, that I started doing these abstracts. I found that I would just go over and do these furious little pieces. They were very intuitive. They were a combination of fast and laborious. I’d work very fast, but then I would have to sit with them for a long time to figure out what to do next.”
More than just the challenge of using different media, the process involved a different technique and expressed an entirely different mindset altogether.
“I could tell the pieces had a lot of anger in them, I could tell they were very expressive of what was going on inside,” she said.
Fetterolf, a longtime art therapist, knew she should pay attention to her new style.
“I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I knew they contained some part of me that, artistically, I really needed to express,” she said. “What is interesting is that I have primarily worked with the figure — my art is about what I see on the outside of me. These pieces were obviously connected to what was on the inside of me coming out.”
In working with a figure, the artist is required to have some organizational process to execute the painting, she explained.
“In order to really do it well, you have to have a certain organization in mind — a certain planning process to do it. You have to think about your composition, your proportion, how you use your darks and lights,” she said. “When I would start these abstracts, I would have no idea where I was going and no idea where I would end up, and that was a completely different process for me.”
After some reflection, she concluded that she was, in part, re-enacting what she had experienced in the hospital — a sense of complete loss of control and a need to trust the unknown.
“I’m sure the fear, the anger, the bewilderment of everything that was happening to me is contained in the artwork, but I think it was the process was what was pulling me into them. The process of learning that each time I would go into these pieces, it was another time for me to tolerate a complete unknown situation and see what I could make of that,” she said.
Because of her artistic abilities, the works Fetterolf created are a thing of beauty to the viewer, yet they were bewildering for the artist.
“At first when I didn’t understand what they were about, it was frightening. It was scary to do for me,” she said. “Now, it’s more a combination of fierceness and glee. All these things are exciting to me as a fairly mature artist beginning something that’s really different from myself. I like the challenge of this. I really enjoy creating these little universes.”
Fetterol’s role as an art therapist was invaluable in understanding that her new art was a part of her recovery process.
“In psychology, there is a process often called ‘working through,’ where if there is a trauma of some sort, you work through it,” she explained. “Sometimes, with post-traumatic stress disorder, you re-experience it over and over again, for instance, in a very visceral, volatile, frightening way. I believe I have a little PTSD, but I think the art gave me a gentler way of working through what I learned how to do in the hospital, which was to sit there and tolerate all this chaotic stuff that was happening to my body and the unknowns about how this was going to resolve itself — the fear, the lack of a happy ending.”
When not absorbed in her abstract pieces, Fetterolf continues to work on her masterful figurative works.
“I have not given up on the figure. I have just happened to fall in love with this abstract direction,” she said. “Where it is leading me, I suspect will be right back into the figure, but in a different way.”
Fetterolf will showcase her small-scale mixed-media abstract series, “Re-covering,” by appointment in her workspace, Outside the Lines, located at 1237 Prospect St. Fetterolf also hosts weekly “Creative Retreats” for women, as well as individual art therapy for adults. To set up an appointment or to inquire about other services, email katecreate@mindspring .com.