Illness and Healing: Images of Cancer
Genre: Art with Commentary
- Duffin, Jacalyn
- Date of entry: May-20-2005
- Last revised: Feb-13-2008
The basis for this autobiographical essay on the experience of having a malignancy are 92 illustrations, all the work of the author; they include 32 ink or woodcut sketches, 24 charcoal drawings, and many acrylic paintings (16 in full colour). Pope's images evoke the dependence, fear, loneliness, pain, and even the mutilation surrounding cancer illness and therapy.
He describes in plain language the course of his own illness, diagnosis, and treatment; he also relates the experiences of a few fellow patients. Most intriguing is his ready description of the stories behind his pictures: who posed, how he painted them, and what exactly he was trying to convey. When the book was published, Pope was in a hard-won remission from Hodgkin's Disease, but he died the following year of treatment-induced bone marrow failure.
Hantsport, Nova Scotia
Pope had a distinct style: realist, with highly angled light emerging from a single source in darkened space, like that of a latter-day Carravagio. His softened edges make all his figures appear to glow: the bald head of a little girl who gently touches her intravenous machine seems to form a radiating halo. The overall effect suggests the menacing, time-bound overtones of a de Chirico.
Pope often takes up the theme of hospitalization and its disempowerment by depicting the patient's eye view of friends, family, or health-care providers at the bedside, complete with the patient's own feet in the foreground. Sometimes the visitors seem to crowd and suffocate; sometimes they are a simple presence, like the solitary figure of Pope's mother who sits patiently at the end of his bed--just beyond his feet. Physical examinations and medical technologies are the subjects of some images, but the angst of the sick and their waiting families dominate the collection.
The title notwithstanding, few of Pope's pictures address "healing" or hope; those that do--a bed-ridden patient watching a sparrow, a woman on crutches approaching at a sunbathed geranium--lack the power of those devoted to despair. These disturbing, unhappy images are difficult for medical people who are imbued with traditional optimism. We do not like to think that our patients feel so lonely and afraid, especially those who are doing well or who have supposedly curable ailments, like Hodgkin's Disease, which Pope relentlessly calls "cancer."
Perhaps for that reason, Pope's family and friends created a special foundation to donate this book of his art and words to students entering medical school. Early in their training, it provides them with a stark and tangible reminder of how it feels to be a patient in the world of modern medicine.