How painting helps me face cancer and overcome loss

When we heard how painting helped Bronson Smith heal after the loss of his partner we asked him to share his story with us. Here, he talks about art's unseen benefits and how its helping him during his battle with prostate cancer.
By Bronson Smith
Bronson Smith paints in his studio Artist Bronson Smith paints in his studio

I come from a long line of artists and jokingly tell people it’s a genetic flaw; I must paint. Like many artists my work is a way of expressing my thoughts and ideas about life. I have always been interested in how the world around us changes, often rapidly. One day there are roads where once there were fields, trees are felled by overnight storms, or loved ones pass away unexpectedly.

Even as a young boy I was caught up by the idea of what’s here today can be gone tomorrow. A barn I played in during family vacations in rural Ontario suddenly vanished one day; it was struck by lightning the night before. My Great Uncle Bronson (my namesake) died shortly before my eighth birthday; he was supposed to perform magic tricks at my party. Friends and loved ones have died, including John my partner of fifteen years.

For me, art is a way of capturing things before they disappear. It’s a way to preserve what once was so that legacy is not lost.

When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2009, my art and my life collided in a way that I hadn’t anticipated but has been incredibly empowering.

Painting allows me to look past the process of dealing with prostate cancer. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the tests, treatment and uncertainty. But even during low points in my life, art helps me reflect on the good times to create images of joy, and sometimes even humour. It helps me focus on the now so that I live in the present. Of course I’m also creating my own legacy. My art will survive me and capture my essence when I am gone. I take comfort in that too.

Art has that kind of power. It’s so expressive that it can help us convey our deepest thoughts, or nudge people to tackle longstanding taboos. Recently, I submitted a painting for an exhibit hosted by the Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries and Simple Alternative Funeral Centres called Impressions of Life designed to do just that; to inspire more people to talk openly about death and death planning. It’s a subject matter most would prefer to put off, but that’s a mistake I’ve learned firsthand.

Bronson Smith painting "Thickson Road House – Kitchen" by Bronson Smith

John and I had put off the discussion of how he wanted to be remembered. It was too morbid a topic. So when he became ill and was on life support in the hospital, instead of enjoying my last few days with him, I was caught up in the details of planning his funeral, meeting with lawyers and making ceremony arrangements. It was distressing and regrettable. I won’t make that mistake twice.

My current partner and I have had long chats about how we want to be remembered. The plan is completely worked out so, instead of dealing with dying, we can enjoy living. That’s how we put aside death. We’ve dealt with it, and that’s why we’re free to enjoy our time together.

I was in remission for prostate cancer for three years, but now the cancer is back. I am creating one painting each week during my seven weeks of radiation treatment to document how I feel as I go through it. It’s an interesting project that really captures my journey in a way that stays true to my art – the fragile and changing nature of the world around us.

Bronson Smith is the Peterborough, Ontario-area artist behind Modern Primitive Wood Paintings. His painting “Thickson Road House – Kitchen” (above) captures a view from the inside of a home that was torn down for the expansion of the ETR 407 toll highway. It was featured as part of the Mount Pleasant Group of Cemeteries art exhibit Impressions of Life, showcasing nine Canadian artists exploring legacy as part of "The Art of Saying Goodbye" and Mount Pleasant Group. 


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