What business does a firefighter and paramedic have with calling himself an artist? The truth is, Daniel Sundahl’s art started simply as a way for him to deal with his real work helping people through their emergencies over the last 20 years that he’s been full-time. He’s always had artistic outlets. Merging the two was perhaps meant to be, even if it originally was only meant to be just for him.
“I never meant to share it with anybody. I never knew that this would happen when I started creating it,” he said.
“This” refers to the incredible popularity of his work that has resulted in a thriving art business that he calls DanSun Photo Art. It comes complete with commissions and books, not to mention his repeated invitations to worldwide symposia surrounding the subject of post-traumatic stress disorder in the first responders’ community. He’s had his share of PTSD and mental injuries endured on the job. He took to staging photos and then digitally painting over them to get the scenes out of his head.
“They’re all based on calls that I’ve actually attended. It was my way of processing them. Once I realized I started having these mental effects from my job, I talked with a psychologist, talked about some things that I could do, and he suggested that I could do things that are completely different and are outside the norm. I don’t think that this is what he had in mind. It uses a different part of my brain. It’s a good way for me to process these calls.”
It was only after he created one scene and shared it with 30 of his friends on social media that he discovered the power of his work. The scene focused on the open doors on the back of an ambulance, the attendants frantically striving to save a young man who was injured during a motorcycle accident. In real life, Sundahl was one of those attendants and the young man didn’t survive. The scene stuck in his memory so vividly that he was able to faithfully reproduce details in the photograph that he then turned into a digital painting.
“I just don’t forget. I have a very vivid memory of all the calls that I’ve done like that. Over a week creating the image is a really good way for me to purge it and process it. I transfer it from this organic thing in my brain that haunts me uninvited to this two-dimensional picture that I can control. That’s how I remember the call now versus this thing that keeps popping into my head. I found this very therapeutic for me.”
That one image was shared more broadly than he could have predicted. He went from 30 followers to 30,000 followers in a day, he said, many of whom wanted him to make more paintings.
“Once that happened, I knew I really struck a nerve. The positive feedback from the community around the world for first responders really encourages me to keep going.”
His digital paintings are visually striking, reminiscent of graphic novel images with bold lines and vibrant colours. They’re very effective at offering a heightened emotional scene. Many of them also include hidden details or obviously invented characters or parts. Some of the people have angel wings. There are ghosts and devils that lurk about. Brutal injuries are painted on for dramatic effect.
Because of the strong subject matter, they also often come with trigger warnings as they can provoke immediate visceral or psychological reactions. They are also often received with profound appreciation, the content resonating strongly with many, many viewers. Some of it is pretty dark.
“It’s more of a trigger for them that reminds them of a call that they did,” Sundahl continued. “Because we’ve all had similar yet different experiences, a lot of people can relate to it through their own experiences, which I never thought would happen. It’s fantastic that it does.”
“Art therapy with trauma is really powerful. He actually organically found a way to process his trauma through art-making, which is really the theory of what art therapy can do in a trauma situation,” said Lisa Hardy, art therapist and psychotherapist at Circle Works Counselling.
She continued, saying that art therapy is different than talk therapy in that it actually creates something visible and tangible – “real and concrete,” she says – while talking is just like a thought that, once said, is gone, “whereas when you’re actually experiencing something with your senses kinesthetic it goes deeper. Utilizing art-making is a way that we can process at a deeper level than just talking about it. I like to say that trauma’s not talked into us so it can’t be talked out of us.”
In a way, this demonstrates the second power in his work in that it shows others in similar circumstances a tool that they can use themselves to deal with their own traumas.
He has received many comments of appreciation from the emergency and first responders’ community that he calls his family. The images have even opened up psychological blocks that have allowed others to start their own healing journeys.
“Today DanSun, you gave me a gift, a gift I never thought I needed and a gift I never thought I would receive. Today, as we looked at your artwork, we read the stories. I watched part of my husband do something far stronger then be a military medic, an EMT or a Corrections Guard. Today, I watched a tiny part of him heal. I watched him smile as he said, ‘been there.’ I watched him tear up as memories came back to him and I listened to him talk. Today, he found the words without effort. His voice strong. His emotional response to your art pieces, appropriate. Thank you. Thank you for that gift. Your work is amazing. Keep it up,” wrote one anonymous commenter on his website.
"It's not so much the artwork. It's just a catalyst. They connect their own experiences through my artwork. I think that's where the real power of all artwork comes from. They have this experience that a lot of them have kept inside for such a long time. Then they see the artwork and it's almost like a trigger. It gives them an outlet," Sundahl said.
In the communityIt goes without saying that it would be a much more pleasant experience for everyone if you were to meet Sundahl when he wasn’t wearing his paramedic’s uniform. It’s a good thing then that his efforts through DanSun bring him into the public’s attention in a much more relaxed atmosphere.
For instance, you can find him today at his DanSun booth at the Edmonton First Responders’ Rodeo, opening at 11 a.m. July 14 at the Kinsmen Rodeo Grounds in Riel Park.
Going a few months into the future, he has something larger planned. He is organizing his own DanSun Peer Recovery and Resiliency Symposium at the end of October at the River Cree Resort in Enoch.
Some of the guest presenters include George Contreras, an EMS paramedic who attended the World Trade Center during the 9/11 attack, Las Vegas paramedic Heather Raasveld who was on duty during the largest mass shooting in American history last fall, and Lisa Rouse, the 911 dispatcher in Moncton, N.B., during the 2014 shooting where five RCMP officers were shot. The speakers will share not only how those events changed their lives but also how they discovered techniques and strategies to strengthen their mental health, maintain their psychological well-being, and build their resiliency to future traumas. A psychologist will be on duty during the event in case anyone is triggered or otherwise needs on-the-spot mental health first aid.
There are many events like this already elsewhere in the world but not here.
“He’s gone to numerous symposiums both all over the States and out in the east. He said that there’s nothing in the west, which is why he wanted to do something. It’s really a good thing to be doing,” said Lana Ebbers, his assistant.
Sponsorships and silent auction items for the event are still requested and details can be found on the event at www.dansunphotos.com. Money raised from the symposium will be donated to the Legacy Place Society, which offers emergency assistance, accommodations and other resources to peace officers, firefighters, EMS and military personnel in crisis. Proceeds from his book sales go to sponsor others to attend other conferences that he is scheduled to present at.
While the symposium sold out in less than two weeks, he’s co-hosting a contest with Inferno Coffee that could still get you in. Applicants must be active first responders from anywhere in the world who must write an essay that details how they intend to use the knowledge gained from the symposium. The prize includes flights and hotel, as well as the event admission. Deadline for entries is Sept. 1.
The weekend will kick off with an art exhibit on the Friday evening featuring Sundahl along with Naomi Fox and Teresa Coulter. Network with your fellow emergency workers and meet the guest speakers face to face in a casual atmosphere with live music provided by Station 4, a band comprised of three paramedics who play for fun and stress relief and to educate about PTSD and life's challenges.