I called this 1995 oil on canvas series “The Flowering God Machine”.
During my last two years of art school, I had Hodgkin’s Disease. During my last year, I was finally diagnosed and underwent Chemotherapy.
It was rough, I won’t lie. I was scared at first, then gradually more and more annoyed at the inconvenience of sickness and death just when I was about to become an art star ;). I was also a single parent of a toddler. I had a job as a manager at an artist-run cafe. I was almost stage 4 (out of 5, very bad) and given a 70% chance of survival.
Really bad timing. (Honestly, it’s always bad timing but maybe getting cancer when you’re 98 years old is slightly better timing)
What was I supposed to do? It seemed obvious to most around me I should pack up, leave Montreal and move back to my parent’s house in Ottawa. Ugh. I just felt this was the wrong way to go – I would lose meaningful contact with my social network (reminder: this is pre-social media. BBS was an emerging technology). I would be in possibly one of the worst cities in the world for arts in 1995. I would be isolated, without my hard-earned, mostly lucked upon studio loft in Old Montreal. I had a hot contemporary dancer girlfriend. Worst of all, I would lose access to my young son.
It sort of struck me then that the best thing to do was not to suddenly stop my life, but to re-double my efforts at what was I wanted to do. I made more plans, I set more goals and stayed where I was. I drank more. I smoked more pot. I had more sex and very deliberately and methodically I made more art.
I used driving a car as a metaphor. Deriving life-saving inspiration from driving a car is kinda pathetic in retrospect, but for my age and situation driving a car was still very new and cool and the way to connect with people and places (Did I mention social media didn’t exist at the time?). Anyways, the metaphor is to keep your eyes on the horizon while driving and not on the road directly ahead of you. I figured by focusing on a distant goal i.e. graduating with my BFA, then I would effectively “trick” my body into getting through this ordeal without giving up.
This was a good start, conceptually. But as artists who work with their hands all know, the physical process of making art is where the real magic exists. So for my final art critique I worked on the below series of paintings. I used “Old Master” oil painting techniques of glazing, which involved lots of paint thinners, Damar varnish and rabbit skin glue. It took a long time and a lot of patience. It was perfect. My body had no choice to but to keep up with the project at hand. Perhaps it was pride but that kept me alive, but fuck it – ego works if applied properly!
Yeah, so I basically “Hemmingwayed” through this difficult period. I partied, I womanized and selfishly worked on my art in any way I damned well please. What were my professors going to say? They all let me hand in my work whenever I wanted. They gave me A’s. Some smoked pot with me. Ah, art school.
Don’t think that this was a giant pity party. I really suffered and in turn caused suffering to my friends and loved ones. Ever seen a toddler gravely worried about your mortality? It’s not pretty. Ever had an infection in one of your testicles? Also not fun. Ever been on an experimental drug that increases white blood cells but works too well and you end up with too much pressure from the inside of your bones out? That was almost indescribable. Ever spent a decade afterwards in a mental haze and physical listlessness because of the chemo and steroid cocktail you received? It’s been quite a trip.
Right. Back to the paintings below.
I called this series “The Flowering God Machine” because cancer seemed like a garden of sorts to me. It grows in you like you’re a garden, almost like it’s a separate life form. And it’s a fundamental part of our physical state of being – so it must be of “God’s Plan” right? (I wanted to give this some heavy associations so I used God in the title) Finally, the whole genre of cancer and treatments is very industrial revolution. If it’s chemicals that cause this, then we are fighting fire with fire because it’s chemicals we are using to try to defeat it, and is a huge industry – thus, it’s a machine. All in all, a pretty bad ass name for paintings about cancer, right?
The first one below is 4′ x 4′. The second one is really big: 6′ x 4′ and the last one is only about 17″ x 10″.
My art after this changed forever. I always felt lucky, and often like I shouldn’t have lived at all – perhaps I would of more easily achieved the reputation I wanted by “cashing out” at that point. That’s selfish. If you are an artist, or anyone with cancer or dealing with someone in your life with cancer here is my advice: make plans, make plans, make plans. The quality of life is the most important thing. Doing what you love and doing meaningful things helps greatly – making sure I got these three paintings done helped saved my life. I am sure of it.