I had my post surgery follow up yesterday. It went well, my neurosurgeon said I could now be considered a normal person (haha, I'll take that with a grain of salt) and I can resume all my regular activities. One very important thing we did talk about yesterday was weaning off the medication I've been having to take since late December. I am not going to lie, if there has been one really, really difficult part of this journey, its being on this medication, I have had the occasional really dark day and it has only gotten worse the longer I've been taking it. I can only describe those days as "despondent" in nature. Thankfully I was given the green light to try going off these meds - I'm hoping and praying I will remain seizure free.
Now, entering into this whole health saga and blogging about my creative output, I made a decision pretty early on - I would always have some little job to work on or some prep to keep my hands busy even if my head or heart wasn't in it. I've already been dealing with chronic illness (unrelated and very well managed) for over a decade so I know how recovery ebbs and flows. Some days when you feel good, you can make miles of progress. Bad days can sometimes only be measured in inches. However, inches add up. Many bad days can set the stage for what looks like miles of progress on a semi good day. The secret is chipping away at small pieces of the whole.
My Bad Day Project
Anyone who has followed my story will start to see a pattern is emerging. There has to be some sort of good coming out of all this awfulness. Beauty for ashes so to speak. It honestly is the only goal that I have reliably set my eyes on. It has carried me through some really awful moments. Seeing the good in this season has kept me moving forward.
When I met my neurosurgeon, the biggest thing that made me trust her was that she works with kids. Parents have to trust their kids with her during very scary times. I used to work with kids and it is an absolute privilege and pleasure to be trusted with them. The stakes are that much higher when its life or death. I do not envy her job in the sense of the magnitude of having to deal with kids who have brain tumours, brain cancer or brain surgery. Trust me, any of these things are hard enough to deal with as an adult. I get choked up thinking about what that would be like as a child (or the parents of a child).
So, right after I met with her about my surgery, I asked myself if there was anything I could do that might help some kid going through a situation similar to mine? That is when the idea hit to make health card sized documents that could empower them during their journey.
I did not invent the idea of "playing the brain surgery/tumour/cancer card" concept. I'm sure a hundred or more people have made their own variations over the years as well (I actually have never googled it because that doesn't matter) I first heard about the idea of a "cancer card" a few years ago when a dear friend was fighting her own battle. She and her husband referred to this mysterious card in relation to kids missing a deadline at school because it fell on a hospitalization day. Needing an extra dose of understanding when meds caused awful mood swings. Needing Tim Horton's chili because it's the only thing that appealed for breakfast. The Cancer Card - getting one means you are a part of an awful club. There is for sure a Brain Tumour Club and a Brain Surgery Club (and those are different, not all people with tumours get surgery, not all surgery patients have tumours). Wouldn't it be neat to have an actual card one could show? Especially if extra treats are involved.
Now coming up with the idea and then actually thinking through the steps whilst dealing with a brain tumour/brain surgery is REALLY freaking hard. I am not going to lie. That is equivalent to me asking you to design a skyscraper. Where do you even start? Even if you have built a skyscraper, try doing it hopped up on meds and having had someone drill a hole in your head, yeah, now you get it.
So, since January, this became a constant low level item on my to do list. On good days, I'd think about my next step on bad days I'd just do that step. To say that these cards pictured above were made with love is an understatement. They were some of the most difficult and some of my best moments through this journey. The only reason why I made them was to give them away. Hopefully to give someone a bright moment in an otherwise really awful situation. My deadline was my post surgery follow up so I could give them to my neurosurgeon as a gift. A thank you for all the years she spent honing her skill so that my biggest issue from the whole ordeal was dealing with how bad those medications affect me. This was also my way to fight the meds.
Now, I'm not a saint either, I will probably make more of these to sell at some point but those won't have nearly the same amount of my heart poured into them. I do have to make a living somehow, and these are pretty cool. However the batch above is special. I remember how long it took to figure out the exact measurements for wallet sized identification documents. Cutting the paper to size. Sitting in a dark room rounding the corners with a handheld clipper (that was a hard day), wording and rewording in my head. Printing in two rounds so I could do two ink colours. Trying to set type that is upside down and mirror image, trying to get perfect registration. Hard enough to do on a good day, very challenging during recovery.
Anyways, I've given most of the brain related ones away, I made extra of the Cancer Card ones because I have plans for those too. Too many people I love have to deal with that monster. Brain stuff is a little more esoteric I guess. I know they seem simple and to the expert eye, there are imperfections but I can honestly say it was the best I could do on some pretty bad days. Totally worth it too.
To read the whole story of my Meningioma click here.
I have two confessions to make. The first is that there is no secret decoder ring to these latest paintings. I figured I should be upfront about that as I've had a few people inquiring about meaning or looking for greater understanding. This is very appreciated - having people looking closely and seeing details means the world to me. Also, while these paintings are not something that gets "unlocked", they definitely do contain meaning and symbols. Its just a little more complicated than "draw item A, add symbol B, unify with meaningful colour C = painting that says this fixed statement about the world we live in/my life and struggles/current political climate" Now all that being said, I could explain what my current work is about, but I'm sure it would sound like a rambling conversation rather than a succinct mission statement.
When I create work, I start with a kernel of an idea and expand on it. Adding personal symbolism is visual shorthand that keeps me moving toward and thinking through that original idea. I'm usually starting out with something that I am trying to process or figure out for myself. These latest pieces are very much about processing - this affects the outcome significantly during the course of the piece. If you want an equation, it looks more like "draw item A, add symbol B, think about why you put those two things together, ask yourself questions about if it is right to hold the preconceived notions of A and B or A plus B, question if that is too obvious. Bury symbol with meaningful colour C, change mind, bring symbol B back to the surface but change the juxtaposed colour to offer insight as to why my position changed on this issue.... and back and forth until the painting you end with looks to be complete" When I paint, I am pretty much talking to myself the whole time. I'm questioning myself. I'm excited by how serendipitous application of paint looks beautiful and I look at ways to replicate that beauty in other parts of the canvas or how to make that little bit of beauty even more beautiful. It's a process in itself.
The second confession is while this style change has been influenced by my current health situation and I prioritize visual decisions a little differently, my brain tumour did not cause me to paint in this style. This change is very deliberate. After reflecting on some conversations I've had in the past few weeks, I want to be clear that I'm not seeing things funny in my brain or with my eyes. This is not like those 50 paintings Bryan Lewis Saunders did while taking a different drug before doing a self portrait. Truth be had, after going through my situation and really taking a hard long look at mortality, I'm ready to paint what I want to paint. Nothing wrong with earlier work, nothing wrong with representational work. I'm in a place right now where I want to change direction. I guess I'm tired of thinking about what other people will like and trying to paint those things. It's an easy trap for artists to fall into.
One thing that has surprised me since returning to painting and trying this new style is how much planning goes into each piece beforehand. This painting was not "intuitive" or a "just go with the flow" piece at all. I thought it through, made a sketch, thought it through some more, made a new sketch and painted from that. This is very heavily revised and edited for clarity and visual presence. This self portrait is a companion piece to It's All Over But the Shouting (That painting incidentally, is on display at cSpace Calgary for the People's Portrait Prize exhibition - you should check it out! More info can be found here). Not totally decided on my next piece but I'm enjoying the journey so far!
To read the whole story of my Meningioma click here.