A kind of mirror

A kind of mirror

I never considered myself a visual artist, but then, I never expected to have cancer.
Hand in hand III. Acrylic and additives on canvas, 48 x 60 inches.
Hand in hand III. Acrylic and additives on canvas, 48 x 60 inches.
© 2013 Jonah Eller-Isaacs


When I was twenty-eight years old, I faced my mortality for the first time. It had passed my mind before: most notably while hiking in the isolated hills of the Nyika Plateau in Malawi, when I stopped a foot short of stepping on a sleeping black mamba. The extraordinarily venomous and aggressive snake didn’t move as my boot paused above its curled form. I slowly circled around and continued on, shaken, but altogether whole. If only our glimpses of mortality were all so fleeting, so easily avoided.

In the spring of 2008, I went to the doctor with some mildly concerning symptoms. I had a mole above my left knee that was looking odd, along with a lump higher up along the inner thigh. The mole hadn’t been doing well for a while, perhaps a year or so, but my bartending position didn’t include health insurance. Late in 2007, I took a job with a nonprofit and finally went to the doctor when my health insurance became active a few months later. I wasn’t especially nervous. After a short examination, my doctor said I should see a dermatologist, that he’d made an appointment for me, and it was in fifteen minutes, so I should get in a taxi right away.

Fifteen minutes. I remember hearing those words and thinking, “This is serious.”

Less than two weeks later, I was in surgery, diagnosed with advanced skin cancer, malignant melanoma that had spread to my lymphatic system. The general prognosis for late-stage melanoma is not at all good. The median life expectancy is six to nine months. Five years out from diagnosis, the survival rate is less than ten percent.

Miraculously, April 2014 marks my sixth year since this terrible, transforming journey began. I am an outlier, a data point floating far above the descending arc that curves towards zero. My survival has not come without great cost: I’ve endured seven surgeries, three rounds of chemotherapy, two rounds of radiation, countless hospitalizations, and a list of side effects so long that I can’t even begin to remember them all. I’ve lost track of all the colonoscopies. And let’s not forget the psychological ramifications of being professionally poisoned all those years: memory loss, depression, anxiety, panic attacks. Mental wounds heal far more slowly than sutures.

Still, to paraphrase Virgil, the memory of even these things has brought me joy. When I was diagnosed, I started writing at groinstrong.com to keep friends and family updated on my progress. Last year, reflecting on the site about all that I’d learned through my illness, I wrote:

the path you will walk won’t be easy
no, it will in fact be incredibly hard
the most difficult thing you’ve ever done
but down that path, though it is quite far, and treacherous,
there is a new you
a better friendhusbandloverbrotherson
with more compassion and empathy
with a deeper sense of purpose
with a greater respect for life
you will love more strongly
you will listen more carefully
you will take care of the people in your life
you will take care of yourself
you will do all you can to create positive forces in your life and the lives of others.

I am still far, far away from being the grounded, complete person I know I can be, but my illness helped me move further along my path of being. I’ve searched for ways to process the experience, thinking first that my death was an imminent certainty, then celebrating the occasional bursts of hope followed by devastating recurrences, and finally, feeling my way through a post-cancer identity. I’ve struggled to pick up the pieces, but the warm embrace of community—of my wife, Kathryn, of my parents and sisters, of pastoral care teams from my home churches in Oakland, California, and St. Paul, Minnesota, of friends, family, and clergy—all these and more have guided me through unsteady times.

Early in 2012, I was looking for an outlet. I needed some way to explore my new self, and although I was writing online at my blog, I wanted something more immediate, more palpable. During a doctor’s visit, I found a brochure for The Creative Center, a New York-based organization that provides free, multidisciplinary arts instruction to cancer survivors and others dealing with chronic illness. On a whim, I signed up for a class on Joan Mitchell and Abstract Expressionism.

I never considered myself a visual artist; but then, I never expected to have cancer. Life works in strange ways. My instructor, Emily, was a wise, wizened woman, heading into her early eighties and still deeply devoted to helping others create art. With her inspirational counsel, I found powerful catharsis in putting paint to paper. It was a visceral, physical art, unlike anything I’d ever done before. When the brush touched the canvas, I stepped outside myself, and the years of pain, frustration, and fear simply vanished. It was bliss.

I posted my first few works from class online, and, to my great astonishment, a friend of a friend who’d followed my progress through my blog asked me if I’d be interested in a commission. I was deeply humbled and a little hesitant. I explained to her that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, that I didn’t have supplies, or studio space, or experience. But she persisted. And now my canvas hangs prominently in her Brooklyn apartment. It’s one of about a dozen custom pieces I’ve completed over the past two years, some for friends or family, some for doctors as a way of saying thank you.

The act of painting takes me out of my body. It makes the past, and occasionally even the present, disappear. But my art is shaped by my past. While I’ve emerged from my years of treatment far better than most—I have all my limbs, and my hair, and of course I am still alive—still l bear deep scars, both literal and metaphysical. The blank canvas has become a kind of mirror, a path towards my innermost self. That journey took a significant detour when I was diagnosed, and creating art has helped me to turn back towards wholeness.

Not long after finishing my class, I entered an art contest for cancer survivors sponsored by Lilly Oncology. The final product was a painting I called hand in hand. I attempted to capture the duality of living with illness, or enduring tragedy: you are at once utterly overwhelmed and destroyed, yet there is something of the phoenix in it, for out of the ashes of yourself a new being rises. I’ve since refined the concept, and my longtime pain management expert, Dr. Tim Canty, asked that I create a version of the image for the walls of his clinic.

The final canvas is 48 by 60 inches, a full four feet by five feet, and it dominates the central office hall. The lower half is a wine-dark, red-black ocean, dense with impasto texture. It is blood. It is the necrotic cells of a tumor. It is fear. It is my own death incarnate. But there is an abrupt horizon line where the black sea ends, and above its roiling darkness is the brightest warmth. Streaks of yellow, white, and orange soar upwards, as if the dark waters have begun to burn away. It is the sound of angelic trumpets. It is beatitude. It is illumination.

It is life.

This article appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of UU World (page 16-18). Painting (above): “Hand in hand III,” © 2013 Jonah Eller-Isaacs, acrylic and additives on canvas, 48 x 60 inches (Collection of Dr. Tim Canty; starfireartistry.org).

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