My journey through art and life has been marked by many “interruptions”. Between my battles with alcoholism, drug addictions, a couple of encounters with cancer, and a few heart attacks, it’s been a bumpy road, and it has impacted my life and my career in many direct and indirect ways. As a result, I arrived at the half century mark last year very much as an outlier in the world of art and in life itself. If it weren’t for the internet, I could easily be seen to be a hermit by now.
The fallout from those interruptions coninues to not only affect my life, but to shape it–and it does so to a larger degree than I like to admit. Each morning, I awake and begin to take stock of how my body feels. That’s because of the constant, chronic pain I experience throughout my lower body as a result of the spinal cord injury I was left with from my second battle with cancer. That pain fluctuates, sometimes to the point that I’m incapacitated from it even with the industrial sized dosages of pain medications I rely on just to be able to walk. On those occassions, the fear of relapse that lurks in the back of all cancer survivors kicks in, too. Needless to say, this combination plays havoc with my mental state, as does the delicate dance I perform with my pain medications.
As someone who has addictions issues, I’m constantly engaged in a balancing act when it comes to the small arsenal of meds I have at my disposal for dulling the various sensations I experience in my hips, legs, and feet. I take gabapentin and cyclobenzeprene on a daily basis without worry, but when I have elevated levels of pain, I have to rely on codeine and hydromorphone (morphine in pill form). And that’s where things can get tricky if I let my guard down. To help you understand this issue, a short history of my personal background is needed.
Throughout the late 1970s, the 1980s and early 1990s, I was a heavy user of both alcohol and street drugs. My drugs of choice were hashish, LSD, amphetemenes, and anything belonging to the opiate class of narcotics. Between the ages of fourteen and twenty-nine, I was on a rollercoater ride through life. The craziest thing about that blurry period is that I pretty much managed to get away with my lifestyle without paying any immediate price for my choices and actions. School came easy for me, and I continued to play sports and music while at school. I was offered a scholarship to study music at Queen’s University, and gradauted with relatively high marks (I think my graduating average was 88%). I was also approached by scouts from the OHL until I told them to fuck off when I was fifteen, ending my prospective hockey career–which was no big loss for the hockey world, as I was valued for my pugilistic skills as much as my work as a defence-oriented right winger.
untitled, ongoing, 2015
I was also readily accepted at the art schools I applied to following high school. In all,, I dropped in and out of three art schools and two other universities before abandoning any further attempts at academia. Throughout this period, I supported myself by working in bars and restaurants, which is a big part of the reason I managed to continue feeding my habits. Back then, a lot of the people who I worked with in the industry mainained habits and a lifestyle similar to my own. In those pre-corporate days, a lot of people I worked with wound up in the business because, like me, they had fallen through a few of the cracks in their suburban upbringing. Bars and restaurants used to be the place many functioning alcoholics and drug dependent/addicted people found employment, because back in the days before celebrity chefs and tv stations dedicated to food and cooking shows, service industry employment was considered to be less a career choice and more the result of academic or career failure. If you bombed out of school, or if you weren’t cut out for a career in one of the traditional professions or trades, you knew you could always find work in a kitchen or behind a bar as long as you could keep your habits to a minimum during working hours.
Which is how I became a lifer in the industry.
From my first shift as a dhiswasher at Chez Piggy during my high school years, I was hooked. In addition to being surrounded by a few people with similar habits, I also found myself in the company of aspiring musicians, artists, and actors, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I had found my own vrsion of home. As I dropped in and out of schools in Ontario, New Brunswick, and Montreal, I continued working in restaurants and bars, until I found my best bartending gig at The Only Cafe, Too, in Peterborough, Ontario in 1990. It’s still going, and is owned by a Jerome and Charon Ackhusrt, a couple who met at acting school in England. They opened The Only (as it is commonly known) around thre weeks before I began working there, and within a couple of weeks, I knew I was going to be working there for the long run. My employers were accomodating of not only my alcohol and drug use, but of everything that came with that territory, in large part because I could work from 8:30 in the morning until closing time at 1:00 (and later, 2:00) a.m. without, for the most part, getting too far out of control.
It was an amazing time in my life. For the first time I was making a lot of money, and I was again surrounded by artists of all kinds. We basically had the run of The Only and of the emerging core of Peterborough’s downtown core. There was an experimental theatre a half block from work, and there was a large and nationally prominent parallel art gallery, ArtSpace (part of a national network of artist run galleries), that granted me a residency during the summer and fall of 1991, kick starting my career as a local artist. Beteen 1990 and 1993, I continued to paint, exhibiting my work in Peterborough and Toronto, while continuing to work at The Only. I also fell in love during that time, becoming engaged in 1992. Yet throughout those years, I continued drinking my face off and doing whatever drugs I could find.
That feeling of home stayed with me when my lifestyle inevitably caught up with me. After losing everything I valued–my fiance, my job, and my self-respect– and hitting bottom, I cleaned myself up with a great deal of help from my friend and colleague Rocky Green and his late partner Bert Thompson. And around a half year later, I managed to get my bartending job at The Only Cafe, Too, back. I was still working there, as a sober husband and father when I was diagnosed with cancer in both 1999 and 2004.
The second encounter with cancer changed everything.
Due to the spinal cord injury caused by the tumor that surrounded my spinal cord within the vertebrae running from my L4 vertebra to the bottom of my spine, I have greatly reduced mobility and chronic neuropathic pain in my lower body, as well as a correspondingly limited time I can remain on my feet at any given time. Because of this, and because my physiotherapy took 2 1/2 years to regain my strength and coordination, I was unable to return to my job at The Only. Between 2007 and 2011, I worked part-time at a small pub that afforded me shorter shifts, but by 2011, I could no longer continue my work as a bartender due to increasing pain. But considering I was expected to lose my left leg back in 2004 even if I could beat very long odds (less than 15%) just to survive, I’m doing ok.
Fortunatly for me, 2011 is when I started selling work on a more or less regular basis, and it’s allowed me to pursue painting on a full time basis. But even so, I have to manage my pain, working with and around it in order to get work done. And part of that includes my dance with codeine and morphine.
I was fortunate to have been referred to a pain management specialist in Kingston a few years ago, and to have been able to address with him the issues that come with my history of drug abuse. Over the course of a couple of years, we settled on my current doses for both drugs. I have just enough of those two drugs to compliment the high doses of gabapentin and cyclobenzeprene I take three times a day, but even so, this means I have a daily prescription 120 mg of codeine and 8mg of morphine available to me. My approach takes into account three main factors.
The first factor is centered on dog walking. We have a two year old husky/German shepherd, which gets me out walking most days, an activity that is good for me in many ways, not the least of which is in helping to regulate my neuropathy while also scheduling and accounting for part of my intake of codeine and morphine. For each walk, I take 30-60mg of codeine and 2 mg of morphine. Following the walk, I go to work in the studio, taking advantage of the added pain relief to get on with painting. Sometimes I have to continue to take codeine and morphine in an affort to extend my working time, sometimes not. The danger I have with taking additional opioids is that they act as both a pain reliever and a stimulant of sorts for me, as I don’t feel the fatigue many people experience when taking such drugs, and if I’m on a particularly good run during one of these sessions, I can easily find myself awake and working for anywhere from 24-60 hurs at a stretch, follwing which I will sleep for up to 16 hours. Though this isn’t my usual working method, it is als not uncommon.
The second factor is simply gauging my pain and deciding whether or not opiods are necessary. As much as is possible, I try to avoid taking opiods for anything more than walking the dog, and I have a rule that I can’t take them for more than four days straight–including dog walks. Even so, there’s a yoyo effect on my mental state that comes with the territory of opiod use for managing my pain. But given that the alternative is to be rendered immobile, I’ll take my chances with the opiods. It’s a calculated risk, but there you go.
The third factor is the knowledge that comes from experience. I know there will be days, sometimes stretching for 3-4 days at a time, during which my pain level will be severe, so I ensure I keep as many doses in reserve as is possible for those occassions.
So why am I telling you all of this?
Mainly to give you an idea of my rather picaresque history, because that history influences my approach to painting by influencing the subjects and technical/formal approaches I choose for my paintings, just as it influences my thinking about the nature of consciousness itself. The people, places, and objects that inhabit my paintings all have personal significance for me, more so now that my mobility is limited, and they help me in my efforts to make paintings that, I hope, encourage and reward repeated exposure.
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.