It’s taken me a long time to become a full time painter.
I spent close to three decades working in the bar business to support my painting habit, during which time I dropped in and out of three art schools before establishing my own studio practice. I have since had numerous gallery and cafe exhibitions in cities and towns across four provinces, but only modest commercial success. My painting (and bartending) career and overall life were interrupted and significantly impacted by two run-ins with cancer during those years, and I continue to be affected by a spinal cord injury related to my second encounter with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I mention these things as background for what’s been going on in my mind lately, for what it is I’m trying to let go of, and for what changes I’m trying to embrace and move toward.
It has now been three years since I left the life of a bartender behind me to concentrate exclusively on painting, during which time I’ve been regularly selling enough work to remain increasingly gainfully self-employed. I’m encouraged by the response my work has received since I began making use of social media to widen and increase my potential and actual commercial audience during the last couple of years, but it’s time to jump back into the world of galleries and social connectivity. More importantly, it’s time to take my show on the road to see what kind of reception it gets from audiences consisting (mostly) of strangers.
This means getting busier, and it means continuing to learn from and challenge myself with each painting I make, building an ongoing body of work that will reflect the standards I have set for myself as I enter what I consider to be the prime and fully mature years of my life and career. I want my work to have greater impact and more substance, to contain birth and death within each drawing and painting I make, and to convey these and other qualities with an elegance born of blunt honesty. And I want it to be beautiful even when it’s not. I want my paintings to outlive me, metaphorically and physically. I want them to matter after I’m gone gone gone.
I want to extend/expand my online presence, and to arrange gallery exhibitions in both Peterborough and Toronto for 2015 and 2016. I want to be pushed by external as well as internal forces. To that end, I’m currently finishing the last few paintings that will go into the updated exhibition proposals I’m putting together for upcoming exhibition seasons. Details will appear later this year as events unfold. Stay tuned!
As I wrote in last week’s column, I find myself entering 2015 with a revived sense of potential and purpose as a result of the ongoing and emotionally fulfilling catharsis that occurred throughout 2014. A good part of this optimism is grounded in the partial but increased relief from chronic pain I have been experiencing as a result of renewing massage therapy following a required ten year cancer related ban on such pain management treatments. The rest of that optimism is the result of what’s been coming out of the studio since I began painting full-time, and of the increased enjoyment I am having with the work and the medium itself. Time is the luxury that has begun infusing my process and work, and that’s an avenue I want to quietly explore in everything I do this year.
And I want to do a lot. More painting, more loving, more living. Having shed so much of the emotional fallout triggered by last year’s journey down the rabbit hole, I look forward to approaching the studio and life in general with a different, positive, and more focussed outlook and energy. I want to continue working in genres ranging from still life and landscapes to portraits and abstracts, but I also want to work toward a new formal approach that is a synthesis of my work in all of those modes. I also want to play with the medium more to find out what it and I are capable of doing together.
It’s go time.
This has been a year of milestones. I turned fifty in April, and I also made note of a series of anniversaries throughout the year that were related to being cancer free for ten years, and for being five years clear of the three heart attacks that threw a scare into me in 2009. And for good measure, I should add that 2014 also marked my twentieth wedding anniversary, the beginning of my fourth year as a full time painter, the fifteenth anniversary of my first diagnosis of cancer, and my having gone twenty-one years as a dry alcoholic.
That’s a hell of a list.
It’s had a hell of an impact on my painting practice and professional/commercial career, not to mention my outlook on life. Some of these events—drug and alcohol addictions and rehab, multiple battles with cancer and heart disease–have cost me professional opportunities as they caused stoppages or a slower production pace in my studio and exhibition practice. More importantly, some of these events almost cost me my life. I know these events continue to affect my thinking and my day to day, practical life.
Needless to say, I’ve been introspective as I’ve approached many of the milestone dates throughout the calendar year. As the year closes, I seem to be gaining a deepening sense of reconciliation with my past. At first, this was part of my plan for consciously seeking catharsis and resolution with the physical and emotional rollercoaster ride that was 2004. But as the year progressed, I realised I was doing much the same thing for events and memories from all periods of my life. And I thought I’d start writing about it to give you an idea of who it is that’s making the paintings that have hopefully caught your interest.
Choosing the life of an artist comes with its own issues, and I probably just added to those issues when I kept dropping in and out of art schools and universities. Given that my active period of drug and alcohol use and abuse predated and overlapped my attempts at academia, and given my lack of aptitude for (or desire to pursue) a teaching career, the piece of parchment was never the goal of my studies. I just wanted to learn as much as I could during my time at the various schools I attended, so I studied and, just as importantly, I worked as a studio model at a couple of the art schools I attended. By paying close attention while modelling for classes and individuals at levels ranging from first year to graduate school to professional studio settings, I was able to watch, listen to, and absorb what was on offer. As a result of my modelling work, my instructors and professors included me in “their gang”, which meant I was included in the discussions and critiques that constitute such a large part of an art school education despite my newcomer status.
Coinciding with my studies and my years of living dangerously was my work in the bar and restaurant industry. From my first shift as a dishwasher and busboy at Kingston, Ontario’s Chez Piggy Restaurant as a high school student, I was hooked. The catch was that I had been raised with the common middle class, suburban expectation that I would go to university, and then pursue a professional career of some sort. I was poised to begin that route when I received a last minute invitation to attend an art school I had applied to surreptitiously. That letter was agame changer for me, and against my parents’ wishes, I accepted the offer, causing the fissures that had long been developing in the relationship between me and my parents to split wide open. They were convinced I was ruining my chances at their idea of a successful life, but I knew I wasn’t capable or desirous of chasing a career and life that had no appeal to me. I knew I had to study drawing, painting, and printmaking, and I also knew I could find work in the bar and restaurant industry to make ends meet and to maintain my own studio while I studied in my own unusual way. My idea for studying was to attend a few different schools to see what each school had in common, and where the schools’ approaches diverged in both technique/practice, and in philosophy.
That first gig at Chez Piggy was also an important formative experience that helped push me in the direction of art. The owner was a former rock star (Zal from the Lovin’ Spoonful), and the majority of the staff during my time on staff were artists, musicians, and writers, so all of a sudden this boy from the ‘burbs was surrounded by people who made me know that this was important work, and it was where I belonged. It was the beginning of what would become a three decade career behind bars, a career that I left behind in 2011 to paint full time. In future posts, I’ll write about my early years as a student and aspiring artist, and about the excesses and picaresque tales that came with the territory. For now, I just want to give you a broad strokes idea of what’s going on in my studio and life, and a few hints about what’s on the horizon. But before I can do any of that, I have to go back to the cathartic exercises I referred to earlier.
That’s because I’m clearing my mind and arranging my life to make the coming year(s) in the studio the most intensely focussed and productive period I’ve yet enjoyed. In order to do this, and to give you an idea of what is motivating my working life as a painter, I feel it necessary to write about the events of the past year (and decade) in an effort to organise and synthesize the memories and emotions that appear to be reaching a crossroads in me, so for context, the next bit is a brief history of my adventures with cancer.
I’ve experienced various periods of depression since emerging, scarred, from my second battle with cancer, in part, I’m sure, as a form of PTSD because of the aggressive nature of the cancer and its subsequent treatment regimen, but more and more because of the chronic, unremitting physical pain that has been my companion since the late months of 2003. That’s when I first felt the painful effects of what would later be diagnosed as a return of the Hodgkin’s lymphoma for which I thought I had been treated for successfully. My case was of a rare nature, both because my remission occurred so long (almost five years) after what had been considered successful treatment, and because the second location in which the disease presented was unrelated to the first place it had appeared five years earlier. When combined with the severely advanced stage of the second episode, my case was merited rare and instructive enough to be granted publication in two medical journals even before I survived treatment.
As my condition went undiagnosed until June of 2004, I was staged as being past the “4D” standard used to designate the worst case scenario for cancer patients. One line in my radiology report began, “But as the patient is still alive, we recommend…” , which is never a good sign. By the time the ambulance arrived on that June day, I had spent eight months succumbing to increasing and eventually crippling pain from my waist to my toes, all caused by the tumor that had grown around my spinal cord, a tumor that stretched from my L4 disc to the base of my spine. I had lost both my job (in February) and 19kg in that period, and by the time I was admitted to the hospital, I had been unable to walk for close to four months.
In the space of the next three months, I received spinal surgery, and four different forms of
chemotherapy as part of a stem cell transplant. Following the stem cell transplant, I was given twenty radiation treatments, followed by five months of physiotherapy to recover as much of my body as I could.
Going in, I was given a 10-15% chance of surviving treatment, and similar odds for keeping my left leg, as the cancer had metastasized and spread to the bone and muscle in my left side hip. At best, doctors thought I would walk with a limp and a cane.
Almost exactly one year to the day after I walked out of the hospital following the isolation phase of my stem cell transplant, and to the complete shock of my oncologists, I was playing in my hockey team’s first league game of the season. It didn’t come easily, but there’s a lot to be said for sheer bloody-mindedness. And, ironically, opiates.
I worked hard every day for years to regain as much strength and stamina as I could once I was finished treatment for my second dance with cancer. When I emerged from my final session of radiation therapy, I once was again 19 kilograms (42 lbs) below my normal weight. My left thigh, when measured, turned out to be 15 cm (6”) smaller than my right thigh, and my left calf is still 12cm (5”) smaller than the on my right side. I continue to experience, on a 24/7 basis, simultaneous sensations of pain, burning, numbness, and tingling, hence the opiates and muscle relaxants I take on a continuing basis. With those pills, I can walk and do most of what’s necessary to have a decent, if compromised, daily life. Without them, I’m useless because of the pain I experience as a result of the spinal cord injury I’m left with as a reminder of that second dance, and an injury that led to further disc injury and loss further up my spine as a result of the physical compensations made necessary by the initial spinal cord injury. This additional injury has caused a permanent weakening in my left (and painting side) arm and shoulder, though little pain. Small mercies.
Needless to say, I appreciate the fact that I am finally able to earn my living by selling my paintings. I also appreciate how that fact has allowed me the time and space to finally confront and deal with the psychological impact of these events and the issues that have arisen in my life from them.
The catharsis I’ve been experiencing began to have more focus when I started “celebrating” the ten year anniversary of the beginning or end of each phase of my treatments upon admittance to hospital here in Peterborough. Those treatments covered seven hospitals in three cities, all in five months. I had more surgeries, procedures, treatments, tests, and imaging sessions than I can honestly remember, but there have still been an almost constant stream of meaningful dates that have presented themselves on my psyche, enough to have made some days and weeks painful to a state nearing psychological paralysis.
But since I had my final celebration in early December, I have noticed I’m breathing a bit easier, and looking up and out more and more, both literally and figuratively. Which is where being fifty comes in, because when, as a teenager, I knew painting was going to determine the course of my life, I realised that I would be taking the scenic route to become an artist, and that I wouldn’t reach my full maturity as either a person or a painter until I was the age I now am.
I was right, and now it’s time to find out what I am truly capable of doing–as both.
This was originally posted to facebook on May 1.
I met my wife twenty years ago today. Lucky me!
I’d been serving her beer during her four years at university, and she served me delicious Indian food when she worked at a little restaurant across the street from the Only Cafe (my employer from 1990-2004), so we knew each other in those contexts, but we didn’t “meet” until a mutual friend, Gogo Pandya, came for a visit. We almost didn’t meet even when Gogo came to town, because Caroline was overdue for her departure from Peterborough, but her rides and travel pans kept falling through for three weeks, meaning she was available for the big dinner another friend had planned or Gogo’s arrival. The day Gogo got to Peterborough, everybody met at the Only Cafe, having drinks while they waited for me to get off of work before we all headed across the street for dinner.
There was instant electricity between Caroline and me as soon as we sat down next to each other at the India Food House, and as our group wandered from bar to bar and eventually to Caroline’s place it became obvious that we were connecting and that we would somehow have to address our feelings, because we had both been around the block a few times and knew that whatever “this” was, it was powerful.
I slept on her couch that night while she and Gogo went upstairs, a little drunk and giggly as I remember it; I was still newly sober, so my memories are actually pretty good for a change.
The next morning I was up early having a cigarette out on the front porch, enjoying the warming sun when Caroline came out with a cup of coffee for each of us. As soon as she sat down next to me on the front porch stairs we started talking, no small talk, just straight to the big stuff of life. Since we knew Caroline was leaving in five day’s time, we didn’t waste any time with our first one-on-one conversation. We talked about what we wanted in, and wanted to do with, our lives, in broad strokes to begin with and then on to some of the practical questions of how we were each planning to realise our goals. Until that moment, I had been planning to save as much money as I could over the coming 1 1/2 years and then moving to Halifax with Rocky Green and Bert Thompson to open Green Studio East, while Caroline was looking to spend the summer in Regina with Gogo while she looked at her next steps as a fresh graduate.
An hour and a half later we had covered a lot of ground. We were both at the crossroads of a new beginning in life, she as a new grad with no fixed or driving career goal, and I was, as I mentioned, recently sober after fifteen years of hard, but mostly fun, days and nights and looking to focus on painting and whatever that path would entail.
At this point Caroline took my cup and went to get us fresh coffees. About thirty seconds later, I met her in the dining room and told her I thought I was falling in love with her. We kissed.
The next five days were a whirlwind, but one thing struck me instantly when Caroline came to the studio for the first time. The studio was on the third floor, and there were paintings in the winding staircase on the way up. The studio itself was a marvel, five ;arge rooms with high ceilings and windows to match, with each art packed room painted a different hue. When Caroline opened the door and walked into Green Studio that first time, she looked as if she had finally arrived home without having known she had been searching for it for the past decade of her life. I knew she was hooked on the place, and on the idea of making it her own home and model for her future. I could only hold my breath and hope that I, too, was somehow a part of that future.
On the morning of the fifth day, after spending a sleepless night in the front rooms of Green Studio with Venus in looking over us, we set off for the train station in Toronto She left town on the 11:30 a.m. train bound for Edmonton, taking my heart with her.
The rest of the story is too long for this space; we’ve covered a lot of ground, literally and figuratively, and have tested the vows we made five months later when we were wed in Regina. And throughout our twenty years together, we’ve watched our bond and our love deepen as we face the good and the hard times together.
I’m a lucky man, and I’m still having the same, and the best, conversation of my life, the one that started over coffee on the front porch steps of a house on Thomas St. twenty years ago today.
Ain’t love grand?