By Barb Schwarz Karst
"Blades of the Mill" is a series of eighteen mixed media paintings representing my brother Bob, four months into his eight-month treatment for cancer. Each of the eighteen paintings contains an image of Bob and a line of poetry that signifies a major turning point in his life. When combining all eighteen lines, reading them consecutively from left to right, they become stanzas in a poem pertaining to those life-altering experiences. In a collaborative effort, Bob wrote short stories and dialogues to accompany my paintings. "Blades of the Mill" was designed to be an educational, inspirational, and uplifting testament to all those conquistadors who are called to fight a similar battle. Featured in this issue of Hektoen International are select works from the series. The full exhibition can be viewed at www.schwarzkarststudio.com or in person at the Billings Clinic Cancer Center in Billings, Montana from August 1st until October 31st, 2009.
Hush for a moment…be quiet be still…
Quixote has conquered the blades of the mill
“Mantle what. Say it again…Mantle Cell Lymphoma. I’ve never heard of it. What is it?”
That is how most people reacted to the news about my brother’s recent stage four diagnosis of cancer.
As an art student, I had sketched my brother when he was young, healthy, and had the world by the tail. Little did I know that twenty-five years later, I would photograph, draw, and paint him when he was in a frightfully vulnerable state and “fighting for his life.” He too, like one of his favorite literary characters, Don Quixote, was confronting his dragon head on.
I wanted this show to be about more than just cancer. I wanted people to know my brother is more than just a statistic or a case study; he is a human being with feelings, a life filled with love, relationships, self-worth, fears, mistakes, and creative thoughts. I wanted to share this amazing story of a good guy who, with the support of an outstanding medical team and a loving God, was able to receive the gift of a second lease on life. So five years after his first clean bill of health and with a little emotional distance, I thought how marvelous it would be to bring Bob into the creative process and have him share his experience.
Originally, I completed a series of mixed media pieces that ranged all the way through the entire color wheel. After hours in Photoshop, converting, enhancing, and composing, I arrived at eighteen images. However, these paintings were abstract and said nothing to the viewer to convey a message of hope, neither did it give a narrative of one’s life. The images were stark, a bit macabre but not the direction to which I was trying to lead my viewers. With each painful artistic step, I was struggling and couldn’t help but think how my laborious process paralleled, yet paled, to Bob’s daily fight with Mantle Cell Lymphoma. How apropos! After much frustration and indecision, I realized I would have to start all over. What resulted are these final pieces that are simpler, yet lively in color, gradating from yellows, oranges, pinks, reds, and reversed again. They convey Bob’s favorite colors and remind us of healthy flesh.
The nervous graphite lines against the warm paint help my brother look more alive. The ambiguous sketch is open to personal interpretation, allowing the image to be identified as anyone’s brother, son, father, or grandfather battling with cancer. Through the close-up composition, we witness Bob’s subtle facial expression emotionally reacting to life’s ever-changing reality. The wrinkles are notches in our armor, diligently displaying each battle we have encountered along our way. They are forever etched into the surface of our skin, telling those who encounter us, “Yes I have cried from sadness, but I have cried from laughter more.” We recognize similar expressions staring back at us in the mirror and in our own loved ones, and realize how we are all connected to the same human experiences. We feel Bob’s frustration, his fears, and his melancholy; but we also relate to his unbelievable strength, hopefulness, and resolve.
Perhaps, like Don Quixote’s companion, Sancho Panza, I watched in awe as Bob courageously prepared for battle each and every day during his eight-month treatment. I tried to memorize his strategies so that I might use them for my own unforeseen and not yet determined battles.
View a selection of the exhibition Blades of the mill in Hektoen International.
Barb Schwarz Karst is best known as a painter who blends traditional media and subject matters with splashes of contemporary freshness and attitude. Originally trained as a watercolorist, she “pushes the envelope” by manipulating oils and acrylics. Her work has been featured in international and domestic exhibitions, one-person shows, and collaborative shows in Chicago, Miami, and Germany, among others. Her work is displayed inthe Montana Museum of Art and Culture. In the last two years, two of her acrylic paintings were shown by the National Society of Painters in Casein and Acrylic at the Salmagundi Club in New York City. She is publicized in several books and magazines, including the contemporary international art book, Art Buzz: The 2009 Collection, ASBA International Quarterly Magazine (Front Cover), Editor's Choice III: Fiction, Poetry & Art from the U.S. Small Press 1984-1990, and the CutBank literary book. She has two works in the Montana Triennial at the Missoula Art Museum (MAM) and is represented by the Dana Gallery in Missoula. Barb currently resides in Missoula, Montana.
Bob Schwarz taught high school English for thirty-three years and coached most of his career in Billings, MT. Known as a “stickler” for proper English prose and highly influenced by the great authors, Bob helped many beginning readers and writers develop a true passion for literature. Additionally, he has written several short stories. He currently resides in Billings, Montana.