When local philanthropist and arts patron Richard Colton celebrated his 71st birthday last year, he threw a party. But instead of a cake, Colton asked his guests to gather around a portrait — one that depicted his recent successful journey through cancer.
What better way to celebrate life?
“It is not a sad portrait. The painting comes through with salvation, not suffering,” said Colton, who placed the work in the foyer of his Garden District home.
The artist, at his side for the unveiling last October, was a woman who is just as at home in neuroscience labs, doctor’s offices and operating rooms as she is her own painting studio.
“It was fitting that it debuted at a birthday party,” said Taryn Moller Nicoll, who depicted Colton’s journey on canvas. “The National Cancer Society’s slogan is about being the official sponsor of birthdays. Richard was not able to celebrate his birthday the year before because he was undergoing treatment, and most of the people who had contributed to his recovery and the art project were present to celebrate at this gathering.”
Nicoll is not your usual portrait artist. The artist in residence at Louisiana State University’s Neuroscience Center of Excellence weaves fine art into medical science and human anatomy, depicting the emotional, intellectual and physical journey of people facing a life-changing illness or other experience.
The founder of InVivo, Nicoll works closely with her subjects as they undergo treatment, maintaining not only a dialogue with them, but also with their doctors.
The tools for diagnosis and treatment, from PET and CAT scans to X-rays to images under a microscope to radiation plans, serve as artistic fodder for expression in paintings that are both abstract and realistic.
For this to happen, the South Africa-born artist stays at the patient’s side for doctor’s appointments, surgeries and treatments.
“I would pick Richard up at 3 a.m. to take him to a treatment or a surgery and see him so tired while he was filling out paperwork. It was a privilege to work with someone who made himself so vulnerable,” said Nicoll, who observed Colton during surgeries and waking from anesthesia, witnessed his response to pain medication and observed what he was able to eat and what things made him feel better. “Not only do you see the pain, but also the triumph.”
Colton was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma near his left ear in June 2012. After 12 of the 47 lymph nodes removed from his neck area were found to be cancerous, Colton was declared to be in Stage 4 of the disease.
He would undergo four more surgeries, 6,000 rounds of intensity-modulated radiation therapy, 30 90-minute sessions of hyperbaric oxygen therapy to expedite his healing process, plus countless appointments and follow-up treatments to monitor his progress. Nicoll credits the willing collaboration of doctors and medical staff for the success of the project.
Looking mortality in the face
As guests that night gathered around the painting, titled “Monoplace: A Portrait in Recovery”, one had a look of shock on her face.
“I really do not like it,” the woman said. She was straightforward: “It makes me think so much about mortality, my mortality, and that is the future.”
“It was an excellent comment,” said Nicoll, who says no artist wants apathy as a response to a painting. “You cannot create an artwork like this without the seriousness of the situation. It made this woman ask some serious questions and consider universal topics we instinctively try to avoid. We try to create distance between ourselves and our mortality. It just goes to show how brave Richard was, that he could look mortality in the face.”
The next step in the journey
The cancer journey, however, is one that requires the patient to always focus on the next step on the road to survival. Colton says he never lingered long on thoughts of death, and that it was not until he saw the finished painting that he could absorb his journey in retrospect.
The painting depicts the foundation of physical life with realistic renderings of the skull as solid framework and rich red textures indicative of lifeblood. At the same time, there is a sense of movement through the use of brush strokes in white and veins of yellow curving toward a triangle of blue. Each brush stroke, each line relates to both the tangible and the abstract elements in the process of treatment and healing.
“Richard loves color, so I had permission to be extremely bold. Red is such a dichotomous color, historically connected to passion and fury and blood, and also to royalty and triumph and energy and vitality,” said Nicoll. Underpinning this canvas of vivid color are the back stories of a personal cancer journey, in particular a sketch of an expression on Colton’s face.
“We were at Richard’s one-year anniversary exam when his doctor told him, ‘When I saw the percentage of cancerous nodules was so high a year ago, I seriously doubted I would be sitting here talking with you today,’ ” said Nicoll. “I remembered the look on Richard’s face.”
A picture of stamina
The body’s ability to heal is a dominant theme in Nicoll’s painting.
“It exposes the wonder that our bodies are, the miraculous mechanisms that fall into place,” said Nicoll, who had witnessed this regeneration after her husband, a military rescue swimmer, underwent reconstructive surgeries to correct repetitive-stress injuries caused by the rigors of his job.
Said Colton: “Doing this art project gave me something to be interested in and excited about at the same time I was going through the drudgery of it all. The counterbalance worked beautifully.”
The cancer survivor has plans for his first vacation since his diagnosis. While remission is a common term for cancer at bay, Colton is aware that vigilance is imperative for his continued wellbeing.
As for the value of recording his experience, he agrees with the artist that “artwork like this can be helpful in creating a more cohesive community experience.”
“Otherwise, cancer can be a very lonely experience,” he said.