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Nova Scotia Artist with AMD Inspires Others
by Kate Kitchen

Jan Gyorfi-West never thought of herself as an artist. i'1 didn't have the academic certificate or credentials that allowed me to say I was an artist," she explains. But her recent, unique exhibition at Cape Breton University Art Gallery confirms the
fact that she is, indeed, an artist-and according to the gallery's curator, a good ,one.
Upon her discovery nearly three years ago that she had developed macular degeneration, this lovely British-born lady decided she had better begin to use her gifts to the fullest. So over a two-year period, she invited local painters, a sculptor, two photographers and several musicians to sit for her in her home-studio on the pristine island of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, while she painted their portraits. The result was an astounding collection of 10 self-portrclits and 38 oils and pastels featuring the cooperative local artists. The collection was exhibited May 12 - June 9 and was a hit, not just with the locals, but with tourists as well. The following is an excerpt of a letter from the curator.
I wish to thank Jan Gyorfi-West for creating this exhibition and giving Cape Breton University Art Gallery and myself the I opportunity to present her extraordinary work and celebrate the talented artistslliving and working on this island. This exhibition captures a specific and unique moment in Cape Breton's cultural history and Jan must be congratulated jo{ sensing this zeitgeist and documenting many of those who have made and continue to make enormous contributions to Cape Breton's visual and musical culture. " --Suzanne A. Crowdis.
This experience has proved to lan Gyorfi - West that a piece of paper isn't required for validation, that when one has gifts and talents to offer, they should be offered.

The portraits were given to the sitting artists in exchange for their framing them and allowing them to be viewed. This gives "giving back to the community" a whole new definition.
Jan was born in England in 1929. She and her younger brother had a wonderful childhood. The family of four lived in a little house in Leigh-on-Sea, situated on the southeast coast of England. "I remember that every chance we got, we ran to the beach," she said reflectively. "My father was a postal worker and we had no car, so we all biked everywhere as a family. There were small tents on the English beaches in which you could make tea on a little burner and we spent every moment possible there, from April to November."
Then in 1939 came the bombings. For several months, the area's schoolchildren were evacuated from the school district and relocated in Darbyshire in the Midlands. The family who took in Jan and her brother, a vicar and his wife, took in eight children. J an's parents were able to visit by train, but they wanted a more permanent safe haven. So when she was 10, the family decided to move inland to Harrow in Middlesex, where they would be safer. But the imprint was made and the artist was to forever be tied to the sea.
Regardless of the austerity of the next few years, Jan was filled with the dreams that little girls dream. "I wanted to go on stage. I took music lessons-singing, dancing, everything available," she said. The family didn't have much, but Jan never knew it, even though during the war, rationing was severe. "Mom was a talented seamstress and made all my clothes, knitted all my sweaters. We were quite comfortable and even though we made do with very little, we didn't want for anything," she said.
At the early age of 12, Jan became a burgeoning artist when she drew her first portrait. "It was of my Belgium grandfather, sitting by the fireplace." Through this engaging patriarch, she became curious about the rest of Europe, especially Belgium, as she grew into her teens and beyond.
When she was 19, she left England with a friend to visit Belgium. It was there she met a young Hungarian student named Alexander. He had just graduated from medical school in Brussels.
"It was springtime in Belgium and he was tall, dark and handsome and could speak no English. He communicated with me in broken French and 1 did my best to improve my French so we could speak," she said. The six foot seven doctor-to-be and the nearly five foot eight slender beauty hit it off immediately and within six months, they had fallen in love. "I remember being able to wear four inch heels with him when we went out dancing," she said. The striking couple married in the fall of 1949. Still together today, still happy together, they will celebrate their 5th wedding anniversary in October 2006.
Nearly three years after they started their life together, a physician friend of Alex's found a job as a radiologist at Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia and wrote to them, suggesting that Alex go into practice there. The area was incredibly rich in beauty, and the community was in great need of qualified medical personnel. Due to the language barrier, Alex had to spend two years in Montreal, writing all his exams over again, this time in English. "He had just learned English and it was difficult, but he did it," she said proudly.
Over the years, they moved several times, but always stayed in beautiful Nova Scotia. They celebrated the births of six babies, five boys and one girl, sandwiched in the middle.
Over one seven-year period, with their youngest just two, the family bought a house in a beautiful spot called Lake Ainslee where they ran a bed and breakfast, Ainslee Lodge. "I didn't have much time to paint then, it was hard work," she said, adding, "But it was wonderful to meet people from all over Canada and from the States." The downside was that Alex had to commute three hours a day and they knew he couldn't do that forever.
Wherever they went, Alex made sure Jan had an artist's studio in the house. At first it was a comer of the garage, then later a renovated barn, but she always had a place to withdraw from the hectic family life. "Alex worked in several hospitals and when he retired, he even did a little farming," she said. They had blueberries, plum trees, strawberries ... and Jan learned to can fruit by the cases. Their lives changed according to the seasons and they remained happy and fulfilled in their marriage. After several moves, they returned years ago to Sydney, the capital city of Cape Breton, back where they started.
Aside from her studio, she loves to spend time in their solarium where she can enjoy plants all year round, even during the brutal winters on the island.
All was well until two and a half years ago. Jan went in for her regular eye examination and the ophthalmologist referred her to a retinal specialist, five hours away in Halifax. Jan was found to have AMD in both eyes, the wet form in the left eye and the dry form in the right. "I'm so grateful to the doctor," she said. "He did a laser treatment to arrest the wet form and an injection in the eyelid that although painful, helped a lot. My vision impairment is not directly in the center, but off center a bit, so that is not as bad. And when I returned for a foHow-up visit, he said that it hasn't progressed, so at this time, all is well. I take a multi-vitamin called ICaps, try to eat healthy, and we walk as much as we're able," she said.
As for her art, she has had to make adjustments for the visual acuity she enjoyed, but is philosophical about the manner in which AMD is affecting her sight. "I've often wanted to paint more impressionistically like Monet did after he began having vision problems. My work is so detailed, that I'm actually looking forward to facing this challenge and seeing how I can enhance my painting. Luckily, when wearing my glasses and using both my eyes, my vision is stilI fairly close to normal."
After her diagnosis, she did have a moment of fear, wondering if she would be able to continue her painting. "I was very lucky to be able to paint the artists and show my work at the university," she said. "I was just given a natural talent and need to use it. And I'm doubly fortunate to have always had a husband who understood me. His attitude was always, 'Leave her alone, let her paint.' And with raising six kids, I needed that alone time to develop my own self." Jan found something rather intriguing recently. On the back of a self-portrait she had painted in the 1980s, she had written these prophetic words: I want to be an artist. "It's only in the past couple of years that I think of myself as an artist," she said. "Because I don't have the academic art background, I think I shorted myself."
Jan says she is extremely fortunate to have this outlet. "First of all, to have a talent to paint is wonderful, especially as you grow older. My husband writes fiction and I paint and both are so therapeutic. I try to encourage others to draw, to find some passion that helps them grow, that helps them feel fulfilled. Too many people are bored in later years. It's important, especially when facing health issues such as macular degeneration, that you continue to develop your talents, to use everything you have. You'll be much happier. "


The Price is Right—Or is It?  The Quandary of (Special) Discounts on Artwork   

When I saw people for therapy, I had a sliding scale.  Different individuals had different needs (emotionally and financially). I tried to accommodate as far as possible, understanding circumstances and limitations.  Artwork, not surprisingly, seems to have sliding scales too.  That said, you can't please all of the people (and yourself) all of the time. There is a point when too low is too low.  For instance, should a $2000 painting be reduced to $750 if it is a commission and you have a "soft spot" for the clients involved?  If you know they don't have the means this is easier. (If they do have the means, it's another matter.)  Then there's those who like to spend more on the frame than the piece.  Again, a whole other story... Priorities, pressures, and obstacles are case specific, of course.  

What about the time, energy, and materials you have put in, as a professional (not for a hobby)? Are you worth a couple of cents an hour or more?  Is what you've created a "labor of love," or "slave labor"? Is a work of $2000 being sought for $750 as a bargain?  Or, should you create another piece that 's more price-adjustable—a $750 work that really has a  $750 value?  Will it still be as pleasing and purchasable?  

Who and what really determines worth and appropriateness?  And, what about fairness, honesty, and trust?  Artwork has a sentimental, as well as investment/ commercial value. Also, instinct can blend with business savvy, or remain distinct.  We all (should) have our price points, as well as integrity and pride. And, of course, there's experience too.  Capacities and expectations, however, may vary, for buyer as well as seller. And, cliche as it sounds, pride shouldn't come before a fall.  Hardly surprising the term "starving artist" is so well known and a common reality.  Do others have hard and fast rules for how to deal with those who try to price adjust and bargain down? When does reasonable haggling become insulting?  When do you prefer to hold onto a piece rather than sell it at any price?

For more on this subject please check out my "Candid Artistic Ramblings"  on the DocSusan site (http://www.docsusan.com/artist/gallery/biennale.htm)

Susan R. Makin

Beginnings, Middles, Endings

Peek in my studio to see beginnings, middles, and endings.  This poem, however, is about more than my artwork—even if it might have caused the thoughts behind the words…

Beginnings are good
There’s hope, adventure, anticipation—all that interesting stuff

A new puppy
A new school year
A new pair of shoes
A new relationship

Middles stir indifference, doubt, delay—things we wish to avoid
They drag or they race—dreams held onto or dreams lost

A mid-term exam
A report half-written
An unfinished book
An intermission

And then there’s endings
The ones that come too soon, and the ones that come too late

Vacation over
Plate empty
Verdict given
Timed out

Priorities are different for everyone
And, it’s all in how we handle the lot we’re dealt

There’s so much that we can do, and there’s so much we can’t
Attitude makes a difference, so does effort

Some of us cope better than others
Some of us try harder than others
Some of us understand
And, some of us don’t

If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I’m saying
And if you haven’t, you may have a better idea of what’s ahead

We’re all so different
But we’re all so the same
Life being, too often, a challenging game

There’s winners and losers
No one having a real say about which side they’re on

Then there’s the times when no one wins or loses
Everyone ties

Beginnings, middles, and endings come to us all—eventually
And, like it or not

Some spend longer in each phase
Some are luckier in one phase than another
Some learn from experience
Some never will.

Susan R. Makin


The cycle of the artist

The exhibit in Saint John this past May emptied my studio of thirty paintings.  This is the cycle of the artist, as far as I can tell.  The studio is filled to the brim with new work, which is then shipped out and hung for display.  If able, the artist attends their own opening show and upon it's completion returns to a slightly emptier studio.  Since my show in Saint John , I have returned to my studio and begun a new body of work.

In terms of my paintings, my main interests have always returned to music.  Through music, I am able to explain my work: music must be simulataneously structured and spontaneous.  There must be contrast and emotion, a sense of constant movement coupled with complete stillness.  I think the paintings I have been wokring on -- both landscape and figurative -- reveal my draw and passion for the movement of music.  

A recent visit to the Leighton Centre * with artist and friend, Melanie Aikenhead, helped reveal some "outdoor music".   Melanie and I found oursleves painting in a forest of birch trees on the Leighton Centre property.  I have a particular love for the intricacy of tree branches, and of course there was the added bonus of the tree's shade on a very hot Calgay day. 

Along with painting outside, I have also been focusing my attention on painting women.  Throughout history women have mainly been painted by men, and I believe that as a woman-artist it is of outmost importance that I capture the strength of women with my own hand.

So the studio is basically re-filling...  There are some photos below to give you a taste of a few of the new pieces on the walls.  I will let you know when the next stage comes.

Until then, Enjoy!


a m y   d r y e r

* The Leighton Centre was established in September 1974 by Barbara Leighton.  As stated in the Leighton Foundation brochure, "The Leighton Centre continues to pursue Barbara Leightons dream of promoting education and art appreciation for enjoyment by adults and children."  The Leighton Centre provides a space for artists to visit and paint, display work, meet other art-enthusiasts and feel inspired. 


Artist STRESS RELIEF—The Portrait Society of Canada


An "emerging artist" who paints professionally, full-time, can have a very isolating existence. This year, having decided to devote most of my time to prepare for the Biennale exhibit, I admit to being a little stressed.  When I’m not painting, I’m trying to raise sponsorship funds, and left and right brain don’t always work well together!

When time is limited and exhaustion and lack of self-confidence take over, I’m happy for a few remedies.  First, there’s caninekind.  Studio assistant Poodle Pals, Lev and Sage, witness every up and down, make me laugh, and insist on going for walks. Second, there’s the company of others who can relate and understand. Last Tuesday (May 29, 07), I attended a Portrait Society of Canada master workshop on the ala prima style of painting led by Juan Carlos Martinez at Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club studio. Veronica Tsyglan, the society’s president supervised.  Between Veronica’s exemplary organization and Juan’s unobtrusive mentorship, the experience was a revitalizing and relaxing treat—just the tonic I needed.

On a day when I thought I wouldn’t be able to paint (was "painted out"), and decided to experiment with less familiar materials and techniques, I was able to create a portrait sketch that pleased and surprised me.  It’s 12in x 9in, oil on wooden board with a black gessoed base (and posted at the start of this blog entry).  I call it "Waiting."  When you’re an artist, there’s a lot of waiting and uncertainty.  Each competition and grant you apply for has you on hold—wondering, hoping, and feeling a tad anxious, especially if you’ve had to pay an application fee and might never receive a response.

Even when painting others, there’s usually a self-portrait of sorts that shines through somehow—"art therapy" happens. Being among other artists and watching their paintings develop, as well as having reassuring and kind experts on hand, was a gift.  After the workshop, I came home and painted again—invigorated from the experience.  I was happy to feel part of a group of professionals that value the artistic vocation—as well as the skill, perseverance, and camaraderie it takes to keep going.

Susan Makin

                                                         LOOKING FOR YOU                                    

The brushes and palette have been cleaned, the canvases lined up, and the easel cleared. I lock my studio door and back out into the sunlight. My steps carry me along a familiar path until I reach my usual subway stop to board the evening trains. It took a few minutes and there you were standing before me - like a vision. I have found you, again.  Of course, I stare – always. I know it’s rude, but I can not help myself. Today I spotted you on the train and surely I saw you yesterday too. I likely ran into you too at the store last week, or not?  I have no doubt that I also saw you on my way home from my studio a short while ago, or was it months ago? Time seems meaningless, it may well have been a year ago – but I always remember: your look.

                       Instantly I know you for, although your appearance, gender, age and most obvious attributes change, the recognition does not.  Where ever I go, I look for you and I see you. My eyes have searched you out when you are alone, with others, or surrounded by many, my eyes have searched you out over and over again. When you feel my stare (you are right, I did stare), promptly I shift my glance elsewhere -to the right and/or to the left to throw you off.  I fumble with my business cards….Just now, the moment I spied you, I knew you were the one.  A quick scan naturally confirms just how perfect and how beautiful you are.  You have that something special about you that demands further investigation – I am enchanted – no I am inspired. The train slows to a stop; YOU get up and head toward the exit and disappear into the crowd.

                      Then, behold, I see you again, not the same you, but it is you. A different you – this time you are older, in fact, possibly, from the resignation etched in harsh contrast to your distinctively sophisticated good looks, much, much older. . OH! There is no available seat so I offer you mine.  I am pushed along by the crowd and lose sight of you. There is still time, I must keep looking. Be you young, old, male or female; plainly dressed, partly dressed or even covered up – you will stand out among others, and I will know you. You will have that something special about you that first attract and then sustain attention.

                       Your attributes beg further study: you might have splendid lips (too narrow, too large, rounded like rosebuds, or otherwise different) a wondrously shaped head, a unique nose, or exciting eyes and/or brows, or maybe prominent cheek bones with a peculiar tilt to the head, or a long graceful curve of the neck, astounding shoulders, a long back and/or legs, narrow or wide hips, slender arms, delicate or monumental or even course hands, or huge feet with petite ankles. On the other hand, you may be a towering figure of a man with massive bulk, or conversely, a tiny bit of a woman –like a sparrow – barely there; you may have voluptuous rolls of flesh wrapped in tight skin; or, you may be ancient, emaciated with skin hanging on the bone. 

                      YOU may not have any noticeable attributes, but somehow be ‘compellingly unique’. The ‘whole combined’ is what fascinates. Hey! There! There you are, and you are striking! Rushing to introduce myself, when handing you my “Portrait Artist” card, I say: “please do feel free to call me or drop by, I have been looking for you…”

A Portrait Artist