“The disbelief, the grief, the doubt, the flung out, the anger, the banter, the bargaining…” Personal experience enabled English artist Michele Angelo Petrone (1963-2007) reach out to others fighting disease. Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease at the age of 30, Petrone became artist in residence at several schools and cancer centres, and created his own arts in health foundation.
As well as Petrone’s work, A Cancer Landscape at the ONCA Gallery Brighton till 28 February also features medical images of cancer cells, and workshop pieces generated by people who have experienced the effects of cancer. It is a fitting tribute. “My journey,” Petrone wrote, “has two intertwined threads – elements which mirror each other as exactly as the two chains of a double helix. One is the medical history. The physical injury, the illness, the happening… The parallel thread is my emotional response.”
Writing about healthcare in my professional life, last year I happened to spend weeks looking at dozens of artworks by people with autoimmune diseases. I discovered that when people use art in the context of disease, they frequently dramatise pain or emotional isolation. But when art is brave and skillful enough, as Petrone’s work is, it can connect with the other patient’s feelings and show them that their emotions are not somehow freakish or unique. It can be cathartic, and I was told at the gallery that exhibition has prompted many people to share their own stories as they visited.
Each piece was accompanied by Petrone’s written description, giving something of the emotional and physical context. More interesting to me, however, was the fact that the emotional landscapes he depicted were in primary colours and had an almost childlike quality about them. This hinted that there was something more important than the disease, and were a positive affirmation of life glowing out against the backdrop of cancer. This feeling, of course, made the few sombre compositions on display all the more poignant.