Washougal man pushes through pain, illness to create works of art

Jon Cody Robertson says he would not have 'gone down art path' if he hadn't gotten sick at a young age

Contributed photo courtesy Jon Cody Robertson An example of Washougal resident Jon Cody Robertson's digital artwork is pictured above. "Digital artwork tends to have a more finalized feeling a lot of the time," he said. "I really enjoy it a lot. Digital painting is getting closer to that traditional 'feel' every day."

Contributed photo courtesy Jon Cody Robertson Washougal resident Jon Cody Robertson's digital painting, "Wandering Mind," is pictured above. "This one really embodies my struggle to try and act normal when I may be feeling indescribable on the inside," said Robertson, who has Crohn's Disease. "I actually got a lot of other chronically ill people saying how much they could relate (to this piece)."

Contributed photo courtesy Jon Cody Robertson An example of Washougal resident Cody Robertson's traditional artwork is pictured above. The character is from a story that he's putting together.

Contributed photo courtesy Jon Cody Robertson An example of Washougal resident Cody Robertson's traditional artwork is pictured above. The character is from a story that he's putting together.

Jon Cody Robertson doesn’t put limits on his ability to creatively express himself.

The Washougal painter, illustrator, digital artist, photographer, graphic designer and musician believes that his multitude of talents complement each other in beautiful and mysterious ways.

“I’ve tried to learn as much as possible over the years about all kinds of mediums,” he said. “I follow my curiosity wherever it goes, and it goes everywhere, I guess. I tend to get bored with what I’m making, so moving from medium to medium is my way of dealing with my attention deficit disorder. I often try to break the barriers between all the mediums. I try to follow my inspiration in the moment not to let anything get in the way, I guess.”

Robertson certainly hasn’t allowed his health to get in the way of his artistic pursuits. He has lived with several auto-immune disorders, including Crohn’s Disease, for the past 11 years.

“It’s been very challenging. (My health issues have) disrupted every aspect of my life,” Robertson said. “It’s hard for me to get anything done. It’s hard for me to make any kind of plans without knowing how I feel. I try my best to not let it affect my plans in that I try not to plan ahead, because I can’t. It’s a miracle that I’ve even been able to continue my art thing through it all.”

Robertson grew up in Washougal and moved to Concord, California, when he was in the eighth grade.

As a teenager, he participated in a variety of athletic pursuits, including swimming , soccer, gymnastics, freerunning and parkour. He was considering a military career before being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when he was a junior in high school.

“I never would have gone down the art (path) if I didn’t get sick, honestly,” he said.

Robertson graduated from Clayton Valley Charter High School in 2010 and relocated to the Portland area in 2014. He moved from Lake Oswego to his parents’ Washougal home in January 2020.

“Recently my parents have become my sole support,” he said. “Moving back in with them has been a major transition. I grew up in Washougal and I love the area, so it’s been nice to come home again after struggling while living on my own. It’s been a lifesaver to (be with my) parents and my family again. It’s hard to put into words how much gratitude I have for them.”

Tracy Robertson, Cody’s mother, said that her son is now “in a good place,” both literally and figuratively.

“Even when he’s at the hospital, he’s so kind and generous, even when people are being awful to him. I don’t know how he keeps it up,” she said. “(His issues have) been tough to deal with, but when he gets up in the morning and walks out of his room smiling, we know it’s going to be a good day because he’s already started on his art or is about to.”

‘The only thing I know is that I wake up in an ambulance’

In order to make his artistic dreams come true, however, Cody has had to overcome a series of significant health issues.

He was first diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, which progressed into Crohn’s disease, as a high-school junior in 2009.

“I was at a theme park, and I was hit with a wave of major nausea and diarrhea,” he said. “At first I thought it was food poisoning, and would last only a couple of days. But when I got back home, it never stopped. It got worse and worse, actually. On top of that, I started getting horrible back pain, and also acid reflux.”

He started taking medication, which limited his symptoms and kept him relatively healthy for about one year. But then the issues “came back with full force.”

“My doctor at the time said that I needed to get surgery, and if I didn’t I was going to get cancer,” he said. “They ended up doing fundoplication on my esophagus to stop the acid reflux. The surgery caused so many issues and made things so much worse in so many different ways. I ended up getting the surgery redone a couple times through the years. Now it’s completely undone again, but I decided not to do anything about it because at this point, I think another surgery would make things worse.”

Cody also has Levator Ani Syndrome, a muscular disorder that causes rectal pain. And he suffers from abdominal migraines, which can cause pain, nausea, cramps and vomiting.

“They come on during a bowel movement,” he said. “The only thing that helps me is to be in the dark for a few hours. Sometimes I’ll take a shower with an ice pack on my head to try to confuse my senses and somehow break the cycle. I’ve learned a whole lot of breathing techniques, so I do anything and everything I can to mediate through it.

“Sometimes the flare-ups get so bad that I can’t get any meds down and I can’t stop vomiting. I get so dehydrated that I end up passing out. I’ve had seizures. My parents say that when I go into these bouts, sometimes I don’t make sense and that I’m totally out of it. I don’t remember a lot of it when I go through it. The only thing I know is that I wake up in an ambulance.”

Tracy said her son’s “episodes are terrifying to see.”

“They overwhelm his whole body, and he just shuts down,” she said. “It’s heart-wrenching. And a lot of the time, when he goes to the hospital, they tell him that they can’t help him, and he can’t understand why. It’s hard.”

Cody has been especially careful since the outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year. He rarely goes outside his home, and is rigidly vigilant about washing his hands and wearing a mask, even indoors.

“My doctor said that I’m 30 percent more at risk (to get COVID-19), he said. “I have to be extra, extra careful.”

But he doesn’t have nearly as much control during his periodic hospital visits, which have become more terrifying than usual.

“It’s awful,” he said. “It’s really scary when I have to go to the emergency room and I’m surrounded by people who have COVID-19. I hear them coughing, and I can’t wear a mask because I’m vomiting. I’m so blessed and lucky I haven’t caught (the virus). I don’t know how I haven’t. It’s a miracle.”

But even during his lowest periods, he finds ways to stay positive.

“I try to remain open to the fact that (what I’m going through at the moment) is not going to last forever,” he said. “That’s my way of holding on to hope, I guess. It’s so easy to get pulled into the fear and panic, and that’s all you think of and experience. I keep focused on my breath and anything else to keep my mind out of the spiral. Art has become a way for me to escape all of these health issues. It allows me to totally take mind off my current situation, whatever it may be.”

‘Bringing something new into the world’

Ever since Cody learned to sketch with a mechanical pencil when he was 6 years old, he’s approached his artwork with an improvisational mindset.

“I don’t really plan anything out before starting,” he said. “I have to have something to get my mind going. Every once in a while an image will pop into my head, and I’ll get inspiration to bring forth that image the best I can. Other times I have lucid dreams, and I’ll take something from them; usually they’ll (be represented in) more abstract pieces. Even in music, I tend to use the spontaneous approach.”

“I never feel more ‘right’ than when I’m creating something. Bringing something new into the world, there’s nothing better than that feeling. I haven’t really sold a lot of my work. I’m not looking for any kind of reward or appraisal for what I do; for me, the act of creating (is what’s most important),” he said.

Cody’s art is “all over the house,” according to Tracy.

“I like all of it so much,” she said. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell that (his works are his) because they are so different from each other. Right now there is so much art out there, and everyone is posting their work online, and the big question is, ‘How do you be different?’ He does a good job with that.”

Cody draws inspiration from “15 or 16” of his favorite artists, but tries not to rely on any particular source because he doesn’t want to imitate anyone’s style too closely. Science fiction and fantasy is a strong influence on his work, however.

His current project, titled “The Burden of Arcadia,” consists of more than 30 2-inch-by-3-inch paper “cards” that portray single scenes of a connected sci-fi storyline, created with mechanical pencils, blur sticks and precision erasers.

“(Science fiction and fantasy) is my biggest area of interest and creativity,” he said. “It just comes from my personal interests — video games I’ve played, books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen. I have a lot of interest in aliens, unidentified flying objects, and the idea that those things could be real. I love the fact that the genre is always predicting things to come. It (provides an artist with) infinite possibilities and it is relatable to everybody.”

Ultimately, Cody would like to blend all of his art styles into one story-based project that would start out as a graphic novel, then possibly evolve into other mediums, such as video games, movies or animation.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but that’s what I’m working toward,” he said. “The sci-fi cards are sort of a precursor to that in some way.”

He would also like to work for a company to produce video games, movies or other mixed media.

“And I’ve always wanted to create a place for other artists like me, a studio or animation company of some kind,” he said. “This area is so perfect for something like that.”

Robertson’s work can be viewed at instagram.com/j.cody.r/