Noe Valley Voice April 2009

Local Artists Turn from Cancer to Canvas

By Lorraine Sanders

Local artist Nanci Reese jokes that she has always felt like something of a copycat when it comes to Greg Carlisle. On the day they met at Cafe Babar in 1980, Reese learned that Carlisle was also an artist and asked him about his work. He said he was experimenting with mounting toys on wooden boards. Coincidentally, so was she.

"For me, it was love at first sight," declares Reese, 57, who has lived on Dolores near 23rd Street since arriving in San Francisco in 1979.

Fast-forward 25 years, through the couple's 17-year relationship and subsequent breakup, through the decade of friendship that followed. Stop in December 2005, when doctors discovered a malignant tumor the size of a tennis ball in Carlisle's brain and rushed him into surgery. Carlisle, 69, emerged minus the tumor, but with a large scar traversing the side of his skull and months of radiation and chemotherapy ahead.

Just over a year later in February 2006, Reese would receive a strikingly similar scar of her own. Doctors found an arteriovenus malformation, or AVM, in Reese's brain ("It's what Nate in Six Feet Under died from," Reese explains), after headaches prompted her to visit St. Luke's Hospital. Unfortunately, Reese would soon get another chance to follow in Carlisle's footsteps.

"I feel like a copycat because he had the brain surgery scar, and, of course, I had to get my brain surgery scar. And then he got cancer, so I had to get cancer," Reese says and starts to laugh in a jovial voice possessing a vibrant quality not unlike that found in the day-glow acrylics she uses in her paintings.

The laughter that frequently erupts from Reese as she explains the trials of the last several years, during Carlisle's struggle against lung-to-brain cancer and her own with endometrial cancer, might at first seem out of place. After all, there were the many months Carlisle was so weak that he fell down the stairs and could hardly eat. And there were the three months of chemo and 28 radiation sessions last year that left Reese unable to collect her mail, too ill to do much more than make the journey to and from the hospital each day.

But as they prepare for their art show, "Nanci Reese + Two," debuting at Gallery Sanchez on April 12, Reese and Carlisle have plenty of reasons to cast out gloom. In many ways, both cancer and the art that followed have changed their lives.

"He was supposed to be dead three years ago," says Reese, who has a habit of answering for Carlisle and happily admits to nagging him like a "housewife," despite their just-friends relationship.

But Carlisle did not die. Now in remission, he knows there is a chance his cancer will return one day. But he's not waiting around for it.

"I don't feel like there's five years to waste. Time has to be used," Carlisle says.

And using it he is.

Problems Fade Away

An artist since childhood who landed in San Francisco during the mid-1960s and lived for 40 years on Elizabeth Street before relocating to the Western Addition, Carlisle began taking art and writing workshops through the Art for Recovery program that's part of Mt. Zion's UCSF Medical Center.

"I had a friend who had brain cancer, and he just stayed in bed and died. I was thinking, I'm not going to stay in bed," Carlisle says, recalling the early days of his treatment.

Instead of succumbing to his illness, Carlisle threw himself deeper into his paintings. The works are largely abstract and full of wild strokes and frenzied marks of color.

"When I'm painting, problems go away. I just don't think about them, and that's a good thing," he says.

Never a driver, he made it a point to walk as often as possible. He underwent acupuncture treatments. He joined the San Francisco Botanical Gardens at Strybing Arboretum. He took the bus on outings whenever he was up for it.

As he recovered, Carlisle noticed changes, some plainly obvious and others much less concrete. His hair had always been curly. After chemo, it grew back straight ("A very expensive hairdo," Reese quips). As for his paintings, they became more abstract. Now they feature more organic forms, often those that suggest flowers and plants.

"The actual forms have changed. There's more chaos. I want to show the implicit order in the chaos," he says.

And then there are other changes that are much more subtle.

"There's something in my consciousness that's changed ever since I had cancer. It's hard to explain, but that's the challenge of it.... It's like a whole new investment in communication," Carlisle says.

Better Composition

Like so many other times in her life, Reese, who says doctors have told her she faces less than a one percent chance of her cancer returning, finds herself in the midst of a similar path.

"Right after radiation, I started painting like a maniac," says the artist, who often puts brush to canvas in her studio apartment's bathroom because she prefers its lighting.

Though she continues to paint figurative subjects in lively colors and simple childlike forms, Reese notes significant changes in the work she's done since her cancer diagnosis.

"There was a substantial difference, a step up, better composition," she explains.

She's not the only one who's noticed a change in her work.

"Ever since her recovery, I think her paintings are different, and I think they're better than what she was doing before," says Arnold Benetti, a friend of Reese's and a photographer who will be showing digital prints of public art and sculptural works as the third artist participating in Reese's show.

Along with improvement in her own art, Reese can point to numerous examples of the ways in which cancer yielded positive outcomes.

"When [Greg] got sick, I had a lot of resentment. And it just got wiped out," Reese says of the way negative feelings held over from their breakup disappeared during Carlisle's illness.

Cancer also allowed her the chance to reconnect with old friends and discover the people in her life who cared enough to stay with her during her hardest times, bring her food, and drive her to and from her medical appointments.

A Lasting Legacy

Today, Greg, who held varied jobs at factories and with the U.S. Postal Service before retirement, continues to pursue art and writing through the Art and Recovery Program.

Nancy, who has also gotten involved in the program, is an active member of the Noe Valley Ministry, holds a part-time bookkeeping job, and is looking forward to the many new art projects she has in mind, including one that will incorporate medical objects from her treatment into a large sculpture.

And just as art has been a beloved pursuit, a creative outlet, and a distraction from illness, it is also a comfort in the face of life that both Reese and Carlisle know can all too easily come to an end.

"I feel like, if I were to die tomorrow--God forbid--I have tons of art," says Reese.

"Nanci Reese + Two" runs April 12 through May 26 at Gallery Sanchez, 1021 Sanchez Street (upstairs). Show hours are Tuesday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. An artists' reception takes place on Saturday, April 18, from 2 to 4 p.m. For more information, contact the gallery at 415-282-7798.