Yellowknife artist Terry Pamplin met his wife Joanna Pamplin in Javaroma in October 2009. Joanna had just returned to Yellowknife. She’d been Terry’s fitness instructor years before – but he was a married man at the time. Coffee turned to dinner dates, and within three months they were living together.
“It was like going through an entire life of searching for someone, then meeting them and saying ‘holy shit, you and I have known each other before, and it has taken us this long to find each other again.’”
Three months later the news came: Terry had stage-three colon cancer.
If nothing was done he had a year to live. With major surgery, the doctors gave him a 50 per cent chance of survival; if they used their whole medical arsenal – surgery, radiation, chemotherapy – his chances rose to 75 per cent.
“To meet my wife and within six-months say, ‘ah, I got cancer.’ Like what the fuck! It seemed wholly unfair. I was outraged.”
Today Terry is cancer free. The joy, rage and finally acceptance that accompanied his fight with cancer form the heart of a new exhibition, Searching for God, that opens Saturday in the Prince of Wales Heritage Centre.
Fifty of Terry’s works, the earliest from 1972, line the Prince of Wales’ Mezzanine Gallery. Meandering up the gallery’s sloping wall are his ‘Home’ paintings – landscapes and historical scenes painted on car doors and other jetsam salvaged from Tin Can Hill. Then, his political pieces, nudes, and abstract works, grouped thematically.
About halfway down the corridor, in a potent, if obvious spatial metaphor, you come to the mezzanine’s bridge and Terry’s cancer pieces.
There are seven works in the series done over a period of four years.
The first is Chemo, there is only a Kleenex between me and hell and I’m not feeling that great. A lime green male nude lies frog-like on his back staring away from the viewer. A Kleenex keeps his bottom afloat while his shoulders, head and feet sink into a pulpy red mass.
Terry began working on it before his own diagnosis when his father was undergoing treatment for colon cancer.
“I was working on a piece that was basically a figure study. But it kept getting away from the basic figure study of a nude reclining. The whole time I was working on it, my own cancer was growing and I didn’t realize it. ”
Across from Chemo hangs the final work in the series, Going Home, Don’t say of him died in pain, but emigrated to another star. It’s almost a mirror image of Chemo, only the nude male figure floats peacefully on a bed of stars.
Over the course of the seven works, you see Terry’s transition from fear and outrage –captured most explicitly in My Little Nightmare where a skeleton with a clock on his back rides a hobbyhorse that’s half My Little Pony and half monster with hooks for fur – to an acceptance, perhaps joyful anticipation, of death.
The colour palate becomes less sickly. Cosmic scenes mesh playfully with mythological characters.
Terry chalks this change up to a philosophical shift.
“Without the diagnosis, I considered myself a 20-year-old in a 50-year-old body. And my nightmare is childhood confronting something horrendous.”
Afterward, he began engaging with his mortality and thinking creatively about what comes after death.
“You think you’re going to become dirt, that’s what makes death so intimidating. It’s a lot more fun thinking you’re migrating to another star. Maybe grownups have to believe you’ll be dirt, but not me,” he says.
Art as play
The exhibition is somewhat of a retrospective – though Terry finds the term too morbid for a living artist. “It’s not a retrospective, it’s a hope for the future,” he says.
The variety is astonishing. Life drawings hang beside abstract explosions of colour. An anti-war sculpture made of dump-salvaged material spins on top a record player.
Behind the range of style and subject matter is Terry’s notion that art is play. If you’re not having fun making art, you’re missing the point, he says.
Because he’s always held other jobs – graphic designer, illustrator, and, for the last 25 years, exhibit designer at the Prince of Wales – he’s never been concerned about selling his art.
“If somebody else is attracted and interested and connects to a certain piece, then yippee. I can buy more paint with that.”
“But I’m not about to say, ‘geez, I sold a picture of a muskox last week, and two friends have asked me to do a muskox for them.’ To me that would be the worst sink hole to get stuck in. I’d love to paint that muskox, but I’m not doing two of them.”
Each work is an opportunity to explore the world in a new way, and Terry does so with childlike wonder.
“I’m a functioning adult. I get by, I pay my bills, I respect the rules. But when I don’t have to, I can be a kid. I can enjoy myself.”
In search of God
If art for Terry is play, it’s also prayer; hence the name of the exhibition.
“In the big picture I’ve become more comfortable saying, ‘ya, it’s sort of a God thing,’” he says.
The way he speaks of it, God is not a specific deity. Rather, it’s the unknown we commune with in moments of ecstasy and pain.
Your head jolts back in orgasm; a swell of angst floods over you and your eyes dart to the heavens. Both for Terry are signs of God.
Terry’s God is present in the fortuitous accidents of art, the moments you stand back and say, ‘that’s it, I didn’t intend that, but that’s it.’
He says his first “gob smacked painting” came when he was painting a fireweed. He was napping in his studio armchair and dreamt of running his fingers along a leaf of the plant.
“That’s what I want my brush to feel like when I load it with paint and come down that leaf in my painting. I want it to go like that. I woke up and tried it and was like, ah, where did that come from!”
Terry’s home studio is his alter and his playground.
As he puts it, “the north is my church and my studio is its chapel.”
It’s somewhere to be a child, meet God in the unintended speck of paint and turn life’s tragedies into art.
Show runs until March 31, 2015