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Monday, April 16, 2012

"The Unmentionables" painting session 8: TEDMED Day 3

At the start of this session I had three unfinished paintings stacked beside me and I was beginning an 8th.  Feeling that I was running out of time, I began painting before Red Cross President and CEO Gail McGovern even began her speech.  I had no idea what topic she would speak on, so I began creating two large swirls in the sky.  The spiral is a symbol of life, so I often like to include them in my paintings. 

painting the unmentionables
Then Gail began to talk about her two battles with breast cancer and her very different approaches each time. I realized I was not painting two swirls in a blue sky. I was painting two breasts.  

Breast Cancer

Gail told us the first time she had cancer she told almost no one.  She felt kind of proud and smug when acquaintances would complain of headaches.  In her mind she said, “Ha, I am fighting CANCER!”  She felt very right in her decision to tell virtually no one, when the folks she did tell would look at her with “Cancer Eyes.”

Cancer Eyes.  I am very familiar with that look.  That is the look that many people give you before making a hasty departure to the other side of the room. It is the look of fear.  Perhaps if they think if they do not talk with us their family won’t catch cancer.

Then after Gail became Red Cross president, her cancer reoccurred.  She wanted to be private once again, but her advisors told her she could not be while in such a public role.  So she came out with her disease and instead of meeting Cancer Eyes she was embraced.  She received letter after letter of support and even a call from the president.  It was a completely different and empowering experience.

Fresh from this deep testament, the audience was treated to a performance by
Choreographer Stephen Petronio.  Stephen is an amazing modern dancer and as he began telling his tale of censorship and freedom Dr. Jacob Scott came to the stage and prepared to place an IV in Stephen’s arm.  I began to, depending upon your perspective, paint two hills or two hips within the painting.  Stephen told us about his arrest and trial due to wearing a drawing on his shirt that depicted sex.  Then he danced an interpretive dance of freedom attached to an IV line whilst I painted him on one hill/hip.


Jonathan Glass, MD director of the Emory ALS Center and Nick Boulis, MD and founder of the Boulis Laboratory, spoke of the horrific progression of ALS.  They spoke of the desperation of patients to be part of clinical trials as this disease is fatal. Then they began to perform, acting out a theatre of the absurd as they unspooled the verbal red tape that often stands between these patients and the help they need.  As I painted I thought of Jamie Heywood and his brother; I thought of that picture of Jamie’s often shows of his brother floating in a swimming pool as the sun sparkles on his flesh.  I thought of warm bodies cold too soon. I thought of all those that suffer so, then I painted a lovely dancer being reeled into a wheel chair using FDA red tape.

ALS and the FDA 

Otis Brawley, MD the chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society, spoke once again of Cancer Eyes.  So I began to paint a strategically placed Tree of Life and paint leaves upon it that were Cancer Eyes.  Otis talked of the poor lifestyle decisions that could lead to cancer and spoke about the dangers over screening and over treatment.

Jon Cohen, MD from QUEST was next and he talked about money, money, money.  So I painted angry bills within our “tree.”  He spoke of patients as incompetent players in a system where payment is blind.  He again and again spoke of patients as being uneducated in health and poor decision makers.  He used his own father as an example, who would pick a doctor based on donuts instead of getting advice from his physician son.  Now, some folks say I use religious imagery within my art and they are often correct.  Here is a Tree of Life, the life that comes from Woman known by Man.  Here is the first covenant, and we have had many more.  And one covenant asks us to honor our father and mother…

Love and the Tree of Life

Next Alex Drane, of Eliza, Engage with Grace, and Seduce Health, strode upon the stage and I cheered her from the hub tent.  She was wonderful as she began to interview Gabby Reece and Laird Hamilton a couple who are professional athletes.  They were beautiful too, but oh, so very real.  Before they spoke at this session, Alex Introduced them at my easel.  Gabby spoke with great poise and warmth when I met her and when I shook Lairds hand I felt the calluses of a hard life filled with work.  They talked about the challenges of healthy living and even spoke of a lack of spontaneous sex when you must plan around the schedules of children.

Then I named this painting “The Unmentionables” for Alex Drane and for the topics that were discussed within this session that are often not discussed at all.  I stepped back and looked up this controversial canvas so happy that it was going to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation who supports open dialogue in medicine.  Paul Tarini accepted this painting upon the stage for RWJF and did not settle for the handshake of thanks, we hugged instead. 

The Unmentionables

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