Saturday, April 29, 2017

Art as a Healing Vehicle for Cancer 2

For the past few months I’ve been putting a book together about the cancer project I’ve been working on the past couple of years. I published it on Blurb, which is a print on demand (POD) publisher. That means they print just a single copy at a time, usually when someone orders one, unlike a traditional publisher who will print the entire edition all at once. The drawback to that is that it makes individual copies more expensive. You can preview the book here. My hope is that it will help others who are on their own journey with cancer. I’m not making a cent on this book. It’s offered at the price Blurb charges me per copy.

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 over 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, most recently at the Castellani Museum of Art in Niagara Falls. 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. 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.

I am in-between cancer portraits right now so thought I would give a go at another self-portrait, mostly because my wife JoAnne didn’t want to pose for another one.  I don’t blame her since I have already done four portraits of her. So this is what you get when I’m left to my own devices.
As some of you may know, I am still dealing with cancer; I’ve had a low-level lymphoma since 2013 and chemo therapy, which I’ve had for a more aggressive lymphoma, had no effect on it. This cancer is slow-growing but eventually it will show its nasty face.
I have had a fascination with crows since the 1980s when I was doing research for a book on the 17th century southern New England sachem, King Philip, also known as Pometacom, Metacom, Metacomet and by a number of other variations. He was Pokanoket, one of many Native groups that comprised what would eventually be known as the Wampanoag.  I had a remarkable experience with a crow in the swamp at Mount Hope where Pometacom was killed and so this piece is personal to me and in many ways symbolically represents events that occurred that day and how they transformed me.
It’s also related to who I am today. Essentially this portrait is about life, death and transmigration. According to Roger Williams who lived with the 17th century Narragansett, the crow came from the Southwest, from the gardens of Cautantowwit, their Great Spirit, and gave them the gift of corn; so his appearance in Southern New England generated change.  Williams also wrote that in the mythology of the southern New England Indian, the crow was associated with the soul. As an agent of both good and ill fortune, it commutes between the world of the living and the world of the dead; as such, the crow's function was to guide your soul at birth, into this world and then back again at death. They also teach us to walk our own path, to speak our own truth, and to know our life’s mission. In this piece the crow is preparing me for my own transmigration. I haven’t given up on life but rather have accepted my circumstances. Fighting is a struggle; acceptance brings peace and understanding. Our true selves are not physical beings who experience occasional spirituality, but rather spiritual beings who are having a physical experience. I believe that’s one of the great secrets of life. Once you accept that, you are on your way to discovering your purpose in life.

My portrait of Cindy Bowler, an exceptional artist who has a great love for Abstract Expressionism. She received a BA in Studio Art from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and her MFA from Johnson State College and Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont.
Cindy was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2015 and just recently completed her chemo and radiation treatments. She continues to take infusions of immunotherapy drugs every three weeks, and will likely continue them for the rest of her life.
Cancer has made Cindy realize that she has to take care of her body. “I had been on auto pilot all my life and have not really been sick (except for toxic shock when I was 21) or broken anything. I took my body for granted and relied on natural medicines to stay healthy, such as herbs, acupuncture and homeopathy. I used my own judgement as to what to do when I needed help.” 
When she was first diagnosed, surgery was recommended but instead she continued on a regimen of natural medicine and her tumor grew and metastasized. It wasn’t until then that she decided to undergo chemotherapy and enter the world of allopathic medicine and hospitals.
Cindy says that she sometimes feels bored, lonely and selfish. “However, I do keep busy…and it is my mind that gets in the way. Now, I see my desires more clearly. I see more of my friends and my daughter, have daily contact with my mother through FaceTime and texting and feel loved. Daily, I notice the awesomeness of my partner through the little things he does for us. I am exploring what cancer means to me on a daily basis through the 100-day art project I started right before my mastectomy and it ended right about the time my radiation treatments ended. I joined an art collective, painted a mural and have had 2 art shows.”
Cindy says that one of the great lessons of cancer is that it has made her more trusting of others …especially professionals in the medical field. “Cancer has made me realize I have lots of friends. And now I know if I want something, all I need to do is ask. I’ve become more patient with people. We are all doing the best we can with the baggage we carry. I can trust my instincts better now, life is more precious and my dreams will get fulfilled in their own time,” says Cindy. “We aren’t guaranteed time on earth. Each day is a new day, and everything is temporary. Now more than ever, I believe that I can always be learning about others…if I can be free from judgement while knowing myself, I can be free of suffering from emotional issues. Everyday there seems to be something I am grateful for….my life has more meaning now. I appreciate the texts from friends I haven’t had contact with in 40 years, the vulnerability of those close to me, the little surprises of love…I’m more grateful now.”
In the background of Cindy’s portrait, I included one of her favorite drawings from the 100-day art project she participated in. I didn’t’ want to replicate her work exactly but rather wanted to incorporate the spirit of her art into her portrait. 

Kate Collins is a retired school district administrator who moved to Northampton, Massachusetts from Long Island about ten years ago. Her move to Northampton came after her diagnosis of invasive lobular breast cancer and a challenging 6 months of chemo followed by 38 radiation treatments. Kate said “It was exhausting, and I had every side effect there is to the chemo.” She left the expensive north shore of Long Island, moved to Northampton, joined a Unitarian Universalists congregation and eventually broke up with her spouse, "who wasn’t able (and didn’t try) to understand what I’d gone through—despite attempts to try to talk about cancer.”
But the experience did have it’s up side. Kate said she “became more compassionate and generous with other people.  I became more grateful for each day I was alive—even though I was in a sort of constant state of anxiety my first two years, until I started meditating.  I began to consider my career, which was largely accidental.  I thought about changing jobs or retiring early.  I retired a decade sooner than I should have if I’d wanted my full pension.  But I did the math, and decided it was worth the loss of $$ to retire, live simply and have the best rest of my life I could have. Now I have a less complicated life that took some time to figure out.  I live in a tiny cottage and tend a tiny but lovely garden.” 
Kate has become more involved in her community and contributes her time to the Cancer Connection, a cancer survivor organization and a fabulous resource for people living in the Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts, and the work is very meaningful to her.
Kate says that she has come to terms with her mortality.  “I’ve already lived longer than I thought I would, so every day is a gift.” She says “the number of people who held out hands of helping or caring was amazing.  I lived professionally in a very large educational community.  The love and support of so many people was unexpected and moving. To learn that there were people I worked with who actually loved me was astonishing.  I remember the first day back at school in September, when I was half way through radiation.  I had to hold a meeting of about 50 of the district’s music and art teachers.  To get past the cancer news, which at least two thirds of the teachers knew about, I began by saying, ‘OK. Let’s get this out there and over with:  Your fearless leader is officially a cancer survivor.’  They gave me a standing ovation followed by a few hugs.  And then we got down to business.”
Kate plays the guitar and used to play the flute quite well but had to stop because of serious spinal column issues.  She also writes poetry, and hopes to someday produce enough to publish a column.
In my portrait of Kate, I included a Phoenix in the background to represent her rise from the ashes of cancer.

Nancy Eddy grew up in Chester, Vermont and still owns the farm that her parents moved to in 1938. She graduated from Chester High School in 1965 and went on to study nursing at the University of Vermont Medical School, graduating in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. After graduation, she joined the Army Nurse Corps and served three years at Fort Jackson in South Carolina and an additional year in South Korea, working with medical swage patients. After her discharge from the military, she worked at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center for 34 years, retiring in 2010 to care for her mom who had CVA, Cerebrovascular Accident (stroke).
Nancy was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and since her treatments all of her follow-up tests have been negative.

Nancy is an avid reader and has a great love for her native state of Vermont so I thought it would be appropriate to include a Vermont theme in her portrait. The design in the background is based on the Vermont state flag and includes the state’s coat-of-arms. This design was originally used as the flag of the Green Mountain Boys and dates to around the time of the American Revolution.

“My passions in life are to hear less about violence and more about the goodness in the world; to hear less about our leaders acting like children and having temper tantrums and more about responsible cooperation in solving our problems; to hear less about the privileged and more about taking care of our fiscal problems,” says Lois Miller. A registered nurse for 41 years, now retired, she owned a yarn shop in White River Junction, Vermont for five years.
In 2011, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center where she had a total hysterectomy and a large tumor removed. Eighteen weeks of intense chemo therapy followed by a further year in a drug trial.  This resulted in a remission that lasted five years. In 2016 another small tumor was detected and removed and a few other areas of concern were identified on a CT scan.  So now she is on another trial chemo drug regimen which will, in all probability continue until her cancer wins the battle, “however this can take a long time and I can still have a good life,” says Lois.
She says that cancer is a disease that promotes fear in people. “Most people are afraid to even talk about it and especially the emotions surrounding it,” says Lois. “For me, death hasn’t been the primary issue, although the further I progress in the disease it may become so. What I’ve found is that my outlook is different now and small things aren’t as big an issue anymore. Watching my birds, knitting, creating designs and drawing have become, not only more enjoyable to do but more important to take the time and effort to enjoy. Reaching out to people, to do things with, is also more important to me now. What scares me the most is how I will make it through to the end without a partner or children to look out for me,” says Lois.
“Overall, I believe my cancer diagnosis was more positive than negative because now I enjoy life more intensely. Interactions with people are more real and meaningful. One doesn’t need to spend time and energy on people that drain your soul,” says Lois.
She has started to volunteer at the Norris Cotton Cancer Center teaching people to knit, one of her passions. In fact, the background pattern in her portrait is one of her knitting designs. She loves speaking with patients there and sharing stories about their journey with cancer.
Since her diagnosis, Lois has become more aware of alternative forms of medicine and their value, especially Reiki and massage. She has even become a Reiki practitioner, a discipline that has opened her life to many more positives experiences.

     “I spent my life being a math teacher and eventually becoming a math consultant who trained entire school districts in Vermont in trying to improve math education and best practices on a district-wide basis,” says Nick Zachary. His professional interests lie in finding methods to unlock potential, joy, and critical thinking skills in students. Nick said that “as I was originally an Electrical Engineering student, I liked incorporating the sciences in my teaching to bring math to life and give it meaning. I was also a keen student of history and historical movements for human rights and dignity and always shared this with my students.”
     Nick’s passion outside of work has been gardening. His sanctuary and meditation has been hundreds of hours a year planting, weeding, creating rich organic soil, and always learning something new from the earth. In Nick’s portrait, I included a Korean Hornbeam in the background, a bonsai he has been nurturing for about 20 years. Growing bonsais has been one of his many passions.
     Nick says what he considers his greatest artistic skill, he discovered in college. “It caused me to change the path of my life when, after 3 years of Electrical Engineering studies, I transferred to the Liberal Arts, intending to be a teacher. During my years as an engineering student my greatest artistic ability was verbal; that I was born to be a story teller. Time after time, I found myself painting pictures with words to communicate some thought or idea to individuals or groups; to use logic and analogy to make a point; to defuse an argument; to get groups to agree on a path. I remember the night I knew I would become a teacher. I was walking in the Boston Common when a group of 5 or 6 high school students surrounded me and apparently had violence on their minds. As the conversation got testy and began to be physical, I looked up to the sky and saw the constellation Orion. Before long, I was teaching them about astronomy, vast stellar distances and times, and creating analogies to allow them to truly understand these concepts. One of them asked, ‘are you a teacher?’ I responded ‘no’ and they said, ‘well, you should be; you are better than the teachers we have.’ Instantly in my mind it occurred to me that I was put on earth to tell these stories and give meaning to guide young people. Since then, teaching has been my form of art and I am happiest when I am doing it.”
     In the Fall of 2009 Nick noticed a lump on his neck. “We watched it for a year,” said Nick, “assured it could be any number of innocuous things, but a biopsy in 2010 revealed Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia. It is an incurable, but often treatable blood cancer in which the body produces ‘bad’ white cells that slowly accumulate in the lymph nodes and bone marrow. It can be an aggressive disease, but mine was progressing slowly, so I was told to just ‘live my life,’ with no treatment or drugs until it was warranted. By the end of 2015, anoyher biopsy revealed that my bone marrow was 85% cancer cells. I went through over 4 months of chemotherapy (using Bendustamine and Retuximab). I came through it very well. My hematologist told me that the cancer was 100% gone. Now the only questions are: 1) how long will it take to return, and 2) will it still be treatable by the same two drugs or will it have adapted?”
     I must say that the cancer transformed my life in many ways. My cancer team is convinced that lifestyle changes I made were instrumental in my strong recovery.
     I had a four-part plan: vigorous physical cardio training and weight lifting workouts complemented by yoga and Tai-Chi classes. Changing to a vegan diet; no meat, no cheese, no dairy and eating mostly my own grown organic food and purchased organic. An intense focus on mindful meditation, stress reduction, and compassion for others; a reverence for the planet that gave us life.
     Nick says he’s come to think that most people don’t fully live their lives because they constantly carry a fear of death. “This experience with cancer, and my eventual mortality, has so intensified my ability to appreciate life; to ‘be in the moment;’ to smile and share love and joy. To show my appreciation for every breath and to communicate it to others. This last one is the really transformative one for me. I am so much more aware of my body; activities and thoughts that induce stress; that create a ground for cancer to take hold. I am so much more likely to smile and to remind myself of how unimportant are things that once would stress me. I love sharing this with everybody from the cash clerks at the supermarket to the lady next to me on the plane, to the person I smile at in passing on the street who ends up stopping and talking. I never really understood the Dalai Lama when he discussed the transformative power of Joy and Compassion; how you transform the world when you transform yourself.
     Ironically, some of the people closest to me had difficulty talking to me after my diagnosis. I was learning to focus on life, and breathing, and awareness of joy, while they were wallowing in fear and pity for me. I would tell them variations of the following: If I live for ‘only’ 3 more years, those years will be filled with calm, joy and love. If you live for another 25 years, will you have that many magic moments? How many of your moments will involve stress, fear or anger? Is it possible that my three years will be far more fulfilling than your 25 years? Why wouldn’t you want to live this way. If I am gone in 3 years, I will have gone truly happy and content.”
     Nick feels blessed and lucky to have contracted CLL. “It is so clear to me now that there was a veil over my sight before the disease. Perhaps we have to face death to truly learn what living means. When you live your life fearing death, which I suppose is perfectly natural, you never get to lift the veil.”

My portrait of Gary Sachs, an anti-nuclear activist from Brattleboro, Vermont. Gary has devoted over fifteen years to activism and fighting against Vermont Yankee, a nuclear power plant in Vernon, Vermont. Trained as a licensed practical nurse, he once hosted a cable-access television program that addressed nuclear issues in Southern Vermont.
Gary was originally diagnosed in 2015 with an indolent (slow growing), small B-cell lymphoma but after further consultation with the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, it was determined that he had a large B-cell lymphoma and started a regimen of chemo therapy.
Gary said “Vermont Yankee was shut down in December of 2014 and I was diagnosed in October of 2015. My treatments ended on April Fool’s day in 2016.” He kept a journal of his ordeal and would channel healing images to help him manage the chemo treatments. Dealing with cancer gave him an increased sense of gratefulness for the beauty in his life.  He said “I felt immense gratitude during treatments. I became aware that I had over a decade fighting for the closure of the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor. Then I realized that I literally needed to make a conscious choice to enter my fight against cancer if I was going to stay alive. I did that and at times it felt like I was willing to grasp at any straw that said it could kill my lymphoma.”
Having spent a considerable part of his adult life working to shut down the local nuclear power plant, he is a man of principles and was willing to accept incarceration for his beliefs. He says he is grateful to have so many friends and a loving wife. It’s what sustained him through this ordeal. Gary believes we should think, act and create the world in which we wish to live. 

My portrait of Billy James Ledger, also known as Keya Akichita Weecha, Turtle Warrior Man, a name given to him by the Lakota. Of Mi’kmaq and Abenaki descent, Billy lived on the Dine Reservation in 1989 assisting Native people with many of their day-to-day needs.
A Navy veteran, during his tour of duty he spent three months with a river boat crew out of Da Nang during the Vietnam War. While there he also did gunfire support in the DMZ where nine marines were accidently killed in what was called “friendly fire.” This tragedy affected him deeply. He said that event was when he “quit loading the guns and was introduced to the needle.” By the time he came back from Vietnam, he was addicted to both drugs and alcohol and was an undeniably lost soul.  He lived on the streets for about eight years jumping around from job to job. Around 1980 he started turning his life around. He met the Buddhist teacher, Thích Nhất Hạnh, at the Omega Institute. “We had a veteran’s sangha and I still participate in it,” said Billy. “I also hooked up with a Japanese Buddhist Order and they did prayer walks which were politically based actions of prayer and consciousness raising.”
With a degree in Fine Arts and photography, Bill did free-lance work for a time in Boston. He’s become politically active and worked with the Veterans for Peace group in Boston and was very active against the war in Nicaragua and El Salvador where he did humanitarian work, bringing medicines to the people of Nicaragua and challenging the 1985 embargo against them.
After that, Billy says he “was part of a witness bearing mission to Bosnia in 1993. In 1994, I participated in the Walk for Peace and Justice, which went from Auschwitz, Poland to Hiroshima, Japan. I was also part of a Sacred Run from San Francisco to Washington, DC and yet another in Australia, in support of Aboriginal people. On another occasion I partook in a walk from Tennessee to Washington, DC as well as several others.”
One morning in 2007 he awoke with a bad case of laryngitis and suspected there was more to it than that. Bill said he went to the VA and they told him that he had the “Big C." He told me he “had a small procedure done and the surgeon could not get all of the cancer so I was scheduled for a partial laryngectomy. After that I could still talk and had a good portion of my larynx left. By 2012, my cancer returned and I knew it was time to have my larynx totally removed. I wasn’t angry or sad, anxious or nervous. It was just another experience I was going to have. I was in the prep room with a large group of friends, including my surgeon, Dr. Louise Davies, and my buddy was drumming a warrior healing song. As they were prepping me for surgery my last words were ‘I love you guys.’ When I came around in recovery I was told that I essentially died on the operating table but they were able to revive me. My surgery was seven hours long and I was back in the gym three months later. I am now 31 years sober and cancer free for five years. I love each breath of life and respect death as I do life.” 

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 him. He died from lung cancer in the 1980s. I haven't spent as much time thinking about him since his death  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 discipline into his life, they sent him off to a Jesuit boarding school in Canada. That experience was difficult for him and it certainly 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.

 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 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 shelter of 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 profoundly affected both his life and our dysfunctional 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.
The love of my life, 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.