Bob Nilson's cartoons have appeared in everything from the New Yorker and Esquire to his hometown newspaper in New Hampshire. But they're most commonly displayed in patients' rooms throughout Children's Hospital Boston, where Nilson has been a volunteer caricaturist for the past 14 years.
Every Wednesday, Nilson checks in with Child Life Services to get a list of patients who'd like to get their portrait drawn and then heads to the inpatient units with his art supplies. There, he gets the creative juices flowing by telling every patient that they can be anything they want in the drawing. "One boy wanted to be a bank robber," Nilson says. "Another wanted his head on the body of a butterfly. Earlier today, I had a patient who wanted to be drawn as the Godfather, so I wrote 'I'll make you a deal you can't refuse' at the bottom." Nilson estimates that he's drawn thousands during his tenure here—all with the hope that it helps them feel good about themselves.
Nilson doesn't consider himself a strict caricaturist because he doesn't only exaggerate features, but also adds these kinds of imaginative elements. "I just modify here and there," he says. Decked out in his signature white, red and blue top hat, Nilson gets patients to smile with more than his funny portraits. "I joke and do what I can to get kids to smile and to take their parents' minds off everything," he says. This was particularly true of one patient who busied herself trying to replicate a pirate caricature that Nilson drew of her. She crumpled up sketch after sketch until she got it exactly right. It takes special skill to copycat Nilson's two-handed drawing technique. "I draw with both hands at the same time so I can go twice as fast," he laughs.
Over the years of cranking out patient portraits, Nilson has drawn it all: little girls transformed into long-haired mermaids or bejeweled princesses, and lots of little boys as big, strapping sports heroes. Despite his high-profile professional magazine work and illustration jobs at events like graduations, weddings and fairs, Nilson insists that his weekly 60-mile commute from his home in New Hampshire to Children's is his favorite trip. "I do my best work at Children's. It's so positively charged here—and the children have so much courage."