Three paintings that helped me beat Cancer

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.

Paintings about Cancer: Flowering God Machine #1 Paintings about Cancer: Flowering God Machine #2 Paintings about Cancer: Flowering God Machine #3

nuit blanche survival tips (and yes, with a criticism or two)

Tonight is the big night in Toronto for the “all-night art thing” that supposedly goes from 7pm to 7am with art installations across the city.

I say “supposedly” because many galleries and other venues participating seem to close well before sunrise. And that leads into my first tip:

Arrive earlier at nuit blanche rather than later.

Crowds are bad around some of the more popular exhibits before midnight, but lining up behind families is far preferable to dealing with drunken yahoos at 4 am outside of a closed installation. Often, temporary work has been destroyed by that time as well.

Pick an area and stick with it

There is too much to see – too much! Relax and accept you will see only a little of what is on display this night.

Bike, walk or bus it to and around Nuit Blanche

Planning to bring your car? I hate you. You ruin everything for everyone else. Nuit Blanche is no fun in gridlock.

Never, ever say “[insert corporate sponsor] Nuit Blanche”.

Ok, this one is political, I know. But it is such an ordeal as an artist to officially get into this festival because Canadian curators LOVE paperwork, corporate sponsorship, international artists and, well, curating things. This means the vast majority of deserving Toronto contemporary artists and galleries are not officially part of this night but some half-ass work from afar with a famous name attached to it will be highlighted in all the promotion materials.

Make sure you stop into unlisted, unofficial art venues along your way

This is more of a how an all night art party should be – discovery, community and endless possibilities around every corner and through every door. More of an anarchist and organically growing entity than a bureaucratic structure.

10 reasons why artists should choose Hamilton over Ottawa

10. Junkies, prostitutes and dealers won’t complain to by-law officers that your treehouse blocks their view.
9. Traffic has not outgrown the street capacity and no one questions whether commuter trains are a good idea or not.
8. In further regard to trains – unlike Ottawa, Hamilton realized most traffic goes east – west, not north-south. You don’t need a car to get around and it take less time to travel from Hamilton to downtown Toronto than from one end of Ottawa to the other.
7. Many artists and curators work in close-by Toronto, but in Ottawa most artists and curators with jobs are from Toronto or Montreal.
6. No one is going to think less of you for having dirty hands and paint-splattered clothing. In fact, they will probably respect you more.
5. In Hamilton there is a scene and artists and ilk are moving there in droves – in Ottawa, there is a small, dull, iron-clad clique so artists and ilk move away in droves.
4. At least in Hamilton, you can lobby to the City Council because they are actually the city council for the city. In Ottawa, city council is a token and petty collection representing the u-shaped stretch of property around the downtown core and inside the green belt, and are mostly concerned with shopping malls and sports teams. The real power and money is the Federal Government and the National Capital Commission – neither of whom give a shit about local arts and culture.
3. In Hamilton, most crime is by desperate people on the street with real problems  – in Ottawa, you are robbed by fat cats in suits driving SUVs.
2. Studio space is abundant in Hamilton and cheap – in Ottawa, the only real industrial complex with artist studios is tightly controlled by Sunday landscape painters and tyrannical house-wives from the Glebe.
1. Hamilton is arguably the best (and last) place in Canada for the creative class to buy property – you can buy a house downtown for $80,000. In Ottawa, you’ll pay at least $400,000 for a house that is mind-numbingly ugly in the mind-numbingly ugly and evil suburbs of Nepean, Barrhaven, Kanata, Orleans or South Keys. You will never be able to afford a house downtown, and the stupidly high rent will keep you apartement poor for the rest of your life.

If you are intelligent, ambitious, creative and original do NOT move to Ottawa. If you are a prospective fine art student, do NOT consider either of the arts programs there. The diploma school is a bit of a joke and no one honours those credits (trust me) and the BFA / MFA program is very limited in scope and incorporates the worst aspects of a fine arts program at a university and rejects the best aspects of a college-based practical approach. Trust me again on that one.

If you have some money, you should move to the Parkdale area of Toronto or consider Hamilton if you need to make a little go a long way 🙂