Saturday, April 29, 2017

Art as a Healing Vehicle for Cancer 2

Do you have cancer or are you a survivor? If so, please consider this offer. My name is Gerry Biron, I’m an artist from southern Vermont and I have been doing portraits of people for 50 years. During that period, I exhibited my work in over 400 shows nationwide where I won numerous first-place and best-of-show awards, and have had my portraits of American Indians featured in seven museum exhibits. In 2013, I was diagnosed with cancer and went through seven months of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. As you can imagine, that changed my life in a very dramatic way. It also changed my art and that development was what sustained me throughout that period.The drawings I produced while I was dealing with cancer became the basis for a style of portraiture that strives to personify the subject’s spirit. It’s a departure from my previous, representational work and in a strange way, it was a gift from my cancer. I decided that I would like to share this gift with other cancer patients. So this is an appeal to anyone who is either going through cancer treatments or has been through it. I’m asking if you would honor me by allowing me to do your portrait that when it’s completed, I will honor you in turn by giving it to you. For me, this is about creating a meaningful portrait that tells your story and helps you in a small way in your struggle with this disease. There is absolutely no charge for this.Honoring ceremonies have long played a vital role in American Indian culture. American Indians honor people for many reasons ranging from marriage, graduation and other notable life accomplishments. It’s also done to provide courage and determination to individuals who are on a journey conquering life’s difficulties. People who are suffering with cancer need to be honored and commended for their strength and resolve to overcome adversity. It’s important for each of us to encourage those who are suffering from this illness; to look out for each other is vital to our society and its existence.Art is often born of human experience, both positive and negative. As an artist of American Indian descent and a cancer patient myself, this is a way for me to honor those who are going through a similar ordeal. I lost both my parents to cancer as well as several good friends so this disease has touched me in more ways than one. Every day, 5000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed; it’s become a fact of life for many of us.My wife and I live a healthy lifestyle. I studied martial arts for 30 years and we were both runners for over 20 years. I've hiked the Long Trail in Vermont as well as sections of the Appalachian trail, I still do yoga and hike every day, and my wife and I eat a wholesome, organic diet, much of which we grow ourselves, yet we both got cancer, and within a year of each other. It's a mystery how or why this can happen but in a strange way, my cancer forced me to change direction in my art, to develop a new style, and it especially taught me to be more compassionate. The Buddha once said that a spiritual person is one who learns to recognize, then works to alleviate the suffering of others. It's a practical form of spirituality that many of us can relate to.If you’re interested in having your portrait done and you live within an hour drive of Southern Vermont, message me and I will be in touch. I can come by your home or we can meet in a mutually convenient place to discuss your portrait. If you live further away than that, I would still be honored to do your portrait but you would have to travel here. I would need less than an hour of your time to do this. I would take some photographs of you and work from them to create your portrait.Each portrait is done in full color and the final size is 22 x 30 inches. It’s a mixed-media, comprised of graphite and colored pencils and ink.Illustrated below are the finished portraits. Give this some thought and I hope to hear from some of you. If you know of someone who is dealing with cancer and might have an interest in this, please share it with them and if you can help support this project in any way, please visit my GoFundMe page.

Before I began Bill LaCour’s portrait I asked if he had a favorite color. He told me he often wears red and that his sign was fire.  So that was my starting point. In the lower section of his torso is a single, enlarged colo-rectal cancer cell, the cancer he was diagnosed with in the beginning of Nov 2015; it had progressed to stage 2-3. “In December, I started my journey of what would be months of chemo and radiation treatments,” says Bill. “I realized I needed to find the best use of my treatment time so I created a mantra; ‘kill the cancer, spare Bill; I will have no adverse reaction to the chemo and radiation.’ I repeated this over and over again.”
This set the stage for how Bill would deal with his cancer and its later recurrence.
“On June 5, 2016, tumors were discovered on my liver, so surgery was scheduled and they were removed with clear margins. When I started getting depressed, I knew it was time to see a therapist, and get my head back on straight,” said Bill.
After a few more months had elapsed, two new tumors were found on his liver, plus 15-20 spots on his lungs. Bill says “I have come to terms with my mortality, which is very freeing. Reflecting on my life, which has been wonderful, I feel very lucky. There are no regrets other than the possibility of leaving my bride someday, whom I love dearly and has to endure cancer from the sidelines as my caregiver and one who never has time off.”
 “By luck or chance, and by running into the right people, I got a referral to Mount Sinai Medical Center where I met with Doctor Bruckner who is world renowned in his field. He has unique treatments and they are giving me hope.”
Bill said that he “hates the cancer but the journey is amazing and so rewarding. It’s the process that gets me through this, the compassion of family and friends, the love that oozes out of everything. The resurfacing of friends with whom I'd lost contact. This feeds me, strengthens me, gives me optimism, gives me life with cancer.”
Bill is a remarkable individual whose strength and resolve to overcome his adversity make him a shining star. It was a gift to get to know him.

My portrait of Ladd Butler, Chair, Board of Directors at Turning Point of Windham County, in Brattleboro Vermont. It was back in December of 1998 when Ladd first experienced an uninterrupted pain in his side, along with an enlarged testicle but he ignored the symptoms and wrote them off as simply job related stress. When he finally decided to go to the hospital, tests showed that he had testicular cancer and would have to start a chemotherapy regimen that consisted of five eight-hour days of treatment, then off for a week, then five days on again etc. “I ended up having six rounds with the cancer drug known as Cisplatin,” says Ladd. “My hair fell out after a couple of weeks and I remember going to bed, turning out the lights and thinking to myself, I have a really dark year ahead of me."
Ladd said his family had a burial plot picked out for him and said he could be buried there in case things went south. Ladd said “I still had a sense of humor, which I find essential to living, and told my mother she better bury me a little distance from the rest of them as I would be coming home late from wherever and may wake them up, ha!”
 Things turned out well for Ladd as he survived the cancer and got a second chance at life. “My niece sent me a camera back in 2000 and I immediately got hooked on photography!” With a strong background in earth science, marine biology and meteorology, Ladd was fascinated with nature and is a keen observer of the natural world. His insightful eye is reflected in the beautiful photographs he takes. “I knew life was a gift and surviving cancer reinforced that,” says Ladd. “My photography is evolving as realize the more I learn the less I know. I'm grateful to be alive and my cancer put me in a more focused place, giving me a perspective of what priorities to pursue and to try not to sweat the small stuff. I have learned the more you give away the more you shall receive. I pass along my photos to share the beauty I see to others with no expectations of payback. The only things we take with us when we leave this world are the benefits derived from our good deeds as material goods are left behind.

In the background of Ladd’s portrait is my rendition of the Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques) a fish known for its colorful camouflage and weedy-like appendages. This close relative of the Sea Horse uses its weedy appendages to blend in with the seaweed that it lives in to fool predators. I used one of Ladd’s photographs as my model. He said “There was an exposition of the Leafy Sea Dragon at the Monterey Aquarium in October of 2009. They were very peaceful looking creatures floating by me in a giant aquarium.... soothing music was playing in the back ground which had a serene effect on the patrons gazing upon them.” 

A portrait of my father. Creating this piece was surprisingly very therapeutic for me, at least in healing the wounds of a very difficult relationship I had with my father. I haven't spent as much time thinking about him since his death in the 1980s from lung cancer or about what motivated him as I have the past few weeks.
 My grandmother Laura told me that he was a very unruly child and to bring some discipline into his life, they sent him off to a Jesuit boarding school in Canada. It was a difficult time for him there that affected his adult behavior. When he came home after his year of schooling, he had scars on his back from a whipping he received. You could still see his scars as an adult. Later in life I learned that he had been sexually abused by a priest and the whipping was to keep him quiet when he got home.
 On another occasion, he and nine-year-old companion were running in a large field near the school dormitory when it started to rain. They took shelter beneath the only tree in the middle of the field. As the storm intensified, they both clutched the tree to stay dry. One of the priests saw them there and started yelling at them to get back to the dormitory, asap. Fortunately for me, my father listened and ran right back. His young companion, no doubt more frightened than my father, chose to stay beneath the tree and even before my father made it back to the dormitory, the tree was hit by lightning and his young companion was killed. Just a few seconds more and the same would have happened to my father and I wouldn’t be telling you this story right now. It’s amazing how fragile the threads are that connect us to our past.
Needless to say, his time there affected his life profoundly as well as our relationship. But I have come to forgive him for the way he treated me and my mother. He was just another human being with his own struggle in life. He dealt with things as best he could. That's all any of us can do.
I chose a southwest theme for his portrait as he retired to Arizona after many years working as a salesman for Sears. He loved it out there so it seemed appropriate to depict him that environment.

This piece is of Caroline Naberezny. She is a 65-year-old mother of two, grandmother of three and a widow who is currently undergoing treatment for stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Caroline and her partner, Robert John (RJ) of Westminster, are musicians. Caroline has sung in many choral groups and plays several instruments. “Music has certainly been my saving grace during life's hard times and has always led me to push myself further. There is never a time when I don't have a song in my head,” says Caroline. She and RJ are a part of the local musical community and they get together to jam with friends as often as possible. “As our daily challenges get a little longer and tougher with this cancer,” says Caroline, “we just laugh and say turn up the music!"

My portrait of Rosemary Rickard Hill, a Tuscarora elder and an exceptional beadworker and teacher. Rosie is also a cancer survivor. She went through years of treatments for stage four dermatofibrosarcoma protuberans (DFSP), a rare form of skin cancer; she is currently in remission. Rosie has been beading since she was a child and learned her art by beading at her mother’s side. She says her mission is to continue this great beading tradition among the Haudenosaunee and to share it with others through teaching and workshops. In my portrait of Rosie, I’ve incorporated one of her favorite pincushion designs in the background and had the hummingbird motifs come alive; purple is her favorite color.

Chicago, "The Land of Lincoln", is where part of Nakki Goranin’s journey began and where she was born. Her mother carried her for six months of her pregnancy in Paris and it is with great affection that she also calls that home. She was born into a family of great diversity. Her parents and grandparents were born into a different culture and different countries.
“I grew up only too aware of the struggles and fights for survival in European and Russian wars that my family had to deal with,” writes Nakki. “I followed what I hoped was my own destiny, in school majoring in fine arts photography, writing and folklore.”
Nakki says that “photography and photo history have been a running soundtrack to my life. Over the years I acquired three vintage photobooths and created a series of portraits and artwork (some of which have been acquired by major museums). Also in the process, I wrote the first history of the photobooth, (published by W.W. Norton,) titled, AMERICAN PHOTOBOOTH. I have lectured and had exhibitions of my photobooth work in museums both Europe and the US.”
Moving to Vermont and working as an artist was a chance for Nakki to gain a spiritual freedom and identity. “When I received my first cancer diagnosis (to be followed one month later by a second cancer, not related to the first), it was a touchstone of sorts with my family history,” writes Nakki. “Unfortunately, I had no surviving family to share what I saw as an irony, that here I too had my own struggle to face. Hearing what was shocking news, we all make choices with how to deal with this.” Nakki’s choice was to see this as an opportunity to be strong, to test what is important to her and how she wants, need to live her life. “I do not see myself as a victim or as a survivor. I am just a life traveler, with a bigger river to traverse than I had expected. When I make that big jump to get to the other side, I want to enjoy the leap, and have faith that my feet will touch down.”

JoAnne has been interested in moths for years. They are valuable pollinators and a food source for birds, bats and other wildlife. Only a small percentage of the 12,000 species in North America are destructive and most of those are not native but introduced.
“It wasn’t until I started to photograph them and see the beautiful, intricate designs on their wings, that I became obsessed” says JoAnne! “The more knowledge I gain about moths, the more I want to learn.” The cecropia moth (Hyalophora cecropia) is North America's largest native moth. They are amazing insects who go through a complete metamorphosis; a tiny egg develops into a caterpillar who spins a cocoon of silk and emerges as a moth. JoAnne has gone through her own rebirth since her bout with cancer and that is what I have tried to capture in her portrait. Her wings are made of cecropia moths that have helped guide her through her journey.
I decided to do another portrait of JoAnne, this time with a burrowing owl as the theme. She is passionate about owls and they are one of her favorite groups of birds. What I attempted to do with this portrait was to merge her spirit with that of the owl.“There’s something magical about an owl’s face and large eyes that seem to look right into your soul,” says JoAnne. “Recently a great gray owl had been sighted not too far from here. It’s one of the largest owls and usually found much farther north. The day we saw it, there must have been 30 birders there, most with cameras and binoculars, viewing this bird who didn’t seem to mind.”
We’re lucky to have barred owls living in the woods behind our home. We hear them hooting both day and night (they’re diurnal) and on numerous occasions, JoAnne has had encounters with them on walks in the woods. “They are either watching me from a tree or silently flying through the woods. Finding nocturnal owls can be a challenge but knowing the correct habitat makes the task easier. We’ve found northern saw-whet and eastern screech owls this way,” says JoAnne. 
Her favorite owl to see when visiting friends in Florida is the burrowing owl, who nest in underground burrows made by ground squirrels or prairie dogs. They are small owls with long legs and are active during the day.

Beautiful and enchanting, Cybele Derby is a masterful specialist on edible wild foods. A longtime friend, she’s been intrigued with the natural world for as long as she can remember. She incorporated wild foods into her diet before it became trendy. An incredible artist in her own right, this former art teacher loves to educate people about the uses of culinary/herbal plants through lectures and weed walks. She’s written/illustrated 3 books, produced 3 hour-long films, and has many short videos on YouTube, all about wild edible plants. She believes foraged foods are strong medicine; they helped her deal with a cancer diagnosis in 2001. Now in remission, she’s even more committed to eating wild and locally.  In my portrait of Cybele, the central female figure is a self-portrait that she did some time ago. I’ve attempted to integrate it into my rendition such that the viewer can’t tell where her portrait ends and mine begins. Cats have been her constant companions since childhood; she feels a deep kinship with these mysterious, mystical creatures.

This is a portrait of my good friend Windsong Blake who, for more than thirty years, was the chief of the Assonet band of Wampanoag, in southeastern Massachusetts. He is also dealing with prostate cancer. When friends from the Sundance community in Potato Creek, South Dakota learned his PSA number had risen to an alarming level, they came down to visit him and carried out a healing ceremony. Their Lakota medicine people performed a sweat lodge ceremony for him and several others who were also dealing with cancer. They blessed everyone with their sacred feathers and songs and since that event, his PSA number has come down to an acceptable level. So every morning Windsong burns some sage and gives himself a blessing and thanks the spirits for his renewed health. As a Sundancer himself, having gone through the ceremony four years in a row, Windsong is also a modern day warrior and a master in the Okinawan martial arts style of Uechi-ryu karate, holding the rank of Hachidan (eight-degree black belt). Uechi-ryu is notably based on the movements of three animals: the tiger, the crane and the dragon.  The dragon, represented in the background of his portrait, is symbolic of the practitioner breath from which his power is derived.
My model for his piece is a famous painting by the Dutch artist, Johannes Vermeer titled The Girl with the Pearl Erring. The bugs are a metaphor for my internal menace, the cancer, and the dark and light stars on their backs symbolize the duality of life, the yin and yang, light and dark, night and day, life and death. The four stars in the background represents my connection to nature and the universe and the four cardinal directions at the center of which is a gateway to another realm.

As I developed this style, I continued exploring issues of life and death as they relate to art and cancer. My model for this piece was Abraham Lincoln. Incorporated into his portrait are prostate cancer cells. As the cells divide and invade his being he watches the departure of his spirit, exemplified by the bird, as it flies off seeking harmony with the universe.

When I began experimenting with this new style, I was exploring cancer from the perspective of art. As alarming as a cancer diagnosis can be, on a microscopic level, individual cancer cells can have a grim beauty. About 5000 new cases of cancer are diagnosed worldwide, every day. That’s a scourge of epidemic proportions. To date, nothing has been found that is proven to prevent every type of cancer but if we avoided tobacco, controlled our weight, got enough physical exercise and took other steps to improve our health, our risk for getting it would be much lower. 
The subject in this painting is from a sketch of a beautiful and intriguing woman by Leonardo Da Vinci. In my rendition, she has a dark secret hidden deep inside her. Incorporated into the design is an enlargement of a cervical cancer cell that was modeled from an actual one taken with an electron microscope. Her eyes have a longing for things as they used to be.

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