Faces of London     November 10, 1999

Exploring the pain in paint
By Vincent Cherniak © 1999

reprinted from:
The Faculty of Media Studies "Online Media Showcase"
The University of Western Ontario
London, Canada

Gerard Pas sits in his home studio before a recently finished portrait, using tweezers to pick at a fly that has been caught in the wet oil paint. He exorcises the body of the bug from the canvas, and looks at the other 11 paintings before him that will be the centre of an exhibit later next year at the London Regional Art and Historical Museum. 
Gerard Pas
Photo by Vincent Cherniak
Gerard Pas puts the finishing touches on a new oil.

Amused at the little cadavers stuck in his work, the London artist explains that it's important not to pick them out before the paint dries. "I always leave the legs, because to get the legs out is too much trouble -- you have to cut the paint."

 Pas enjoys the playful break from what is otherwise a very serious project before him. He is putting finishing touches on the 12 paintings, collectively called The Saints, which depict figures with various prosthetic devices such as braces, crutches and respirators. One painting is his take on a famous Rembrandt -- entitled Woman in the Golden Helmet, it shows a New York fashion model wearing a "halo helmet," a leather cap for handicapped people with a propensity to fall on their heads.

 For Pas, the paintings are not an academic exercise; afflicted with polio as a child, he suffers from an atrophied left leg. At the age of 10, Pas was a Timmy, the poster child for handicapped kids. Now 44, he tries to evoke an empathy in his paintings that draws upon the life experiences of an artist who has suffered.

 "The whole prospect of The Saints is about realizing the human condition. We all have to carry a burden -- but after a time, you realize that it is the burden that makes you human. As with death, when you see death, or how death has hurt you, and you feel the absence of that person, it is much easier to be empathetic. Empathy is the hug, the embrace ... It says, 'I know, I have been there, I know the pain that you are feeling, and let me tell you that there is hope.' "

 The subjects in his work range from historical figures, such as Albrecht Durer's mother, to Pas' own healthy children, Nicole and Joshua. In one painting, the now-quadriplegic actor Christopher Reeve is shown as Superman, but here with a tracheal ventilator and blow-ability switch, the device that enables control of his wheelchair. 

"I think that is the most beautiful paradox of all. It is that here is this ideal, this modern Greek hero, this Odysseus or Ulysses, yet now when people see him he is the epitome of frailty. He can't even move. He is paralyzed."

 The use of crutches, canes and wheelchairs has been a part of Pas' moral and esthetic imagination for over a decade. The paintings and sculptures that have resulted from his exploration have been met with much critical acclaim. There have been exhibits across North America and Europe, and his work hangs in various collections in Holland and Canada. But the difficult themes Pas engages have kept gallery dealers at bay: as Pas puts it, the complex issues raised in his work mean that he is not the most accessible artist to clients looking for a nice landscape to match their sofa.

 Over the years, Pas has had to rely on the support of his wife Maria, and grants from the Canada and Ontario Arts Councils. Dwindling funding from the government in recent years has left Pas a bit perplexed at how to remain committed to his art without taking on a vocational job.

 "I have to eat, and this government situation is like the church in the Renaissance telling Michelangelo, 'Sorry, we're getting out of the arts business.' "

 To make ends meet this year, Pas took on a gardening contract at a local monastery. Pas says that stepping out of the studio to work in nature has made a nice complement to his intellectual pursuits as an artist. With like-minded spiritual concerns, he has become like family to the nuns of The Sisters of the Precious Blood. But Mother Superior Eileen Mary says he hasn't quite left his esthetic sensibilities behind at the studio.

 "Gerard takes pride in his work. Some of our visitors have remarked to us that they see our grounds have been kept by not only a good landscaper, but an artistic landscaper."

 Pas is reflective on the irony of his day job. "I always sort of thought that I'd end up working for the Vatican -- that is, painting a cupola somewhere, or a dome somewhere -- but I never thought it'd be like this! But cutting grass for the Pope ... well, it's got a nice little twist to it I guess."

 Gerald Vaandering, also a London artist, works alongside Pas at the monastery. He says but for a few senior artists in the community, earning a trickle income from other jobs is just the way it is for someone inspired to create. He observes the benefits that working in a garden bestow on people like himself and Pas.

 "You work at a meditative pace here, which allows a legitimate relief from your obsessions in the studio. There are psychological dividends; the work doesn't mentally wear out the artist. It has allowed Gerard to be incredibly productive; he keeps a steady pace back at the studio. It's a pace he practises perfectly ... He is somebody that keeps moving along and before you know it, he's got a large body of work again."

 Vaandering has been following Pas' work over the years, and he sees an intellectual maturity in his new work. But there are other artists in the community who have not been as receptive to Pas' exploration of disabilities and physical and emotional challenges -- themes that have recurred since his early days as a student at H.B. Beal Technical School. Some have called the themes overly obsessive, and look to see his talent move on to explore other concerns.

 Yet Pas sees his work in a larger frame, where returning to a subject over and over brings clarity, and brings deeper connections together. As with Van Gogh, he says, emotional obsessions can magnify the world and find a strange beauty.

 "Looking at physically challenged people comes out of a need to find love and compassion. Sometimes I think I need to find some other focus, because angst is what sells in the art market. And I think I'd like to find peace in my later years as an artist, maybe like Matisse, and just find the joy in painting the body. But I have spent 20 years dealing with pain and suffering, I own those experiences and emotions and seek to honour them. I'm not Rick Hansen -- who went around the world in his wheelchair. I'm the antithesis of that; I want to observe the suffering and struggles involved."

 Pas' sister, Margaret, says her brother's need for the cathartic experience in his art has always been the starting point of his muse. "It began when he was a child, the combination of dealing with polio, an alcoholic father and a dysfunctional family; it's in the intersection of all these things that drives him. Possibly, if he didn't have one of these things, he wouldn't be a great artist."

 As Pas stares at the bug legs left behind on his canvas, he considers the importance of the trials and travails in his life, and the recurring need to find stability and love in his family and marriage.

 "Of course, I feel art is born out of pain," he suggests. "I just don't think you can make a work of art without having deep experiences yourself. Moving on in the future, who knows. Maybe I won't be talking about my broken leg ... I'll be talking about my broken heart."

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Gerard Pas