Artist’s work changes after brain cancer diagnosis

By VICKIE ALDOUS

ASHLAND, Ore. — When Austin Brayfield was diagnosed with brain cancer, her painting took on new urgency.

The 83-year-old Ashland artist, who started painting at 70 after a career as a psychologist, began turning out anguished, feverish works packed with emotional power.

With her ability to speak diminishing, Brayfield put her thoughts in writing, reports the Mail Tribune.

“Six months ago, when I was diagnosed with glioblastoma cancer centered in the speech area of my brain, I began a series of work that explores my mortality and my anxieties over the prospect of my disintegrating mental and physical capabilities,” she wrote. “With the possibility of losing my ability to speak, painting has become more important than ever: a vital, physical communication, beyond words.”

Glioblastoma tumors arise from star-shaped cells that form the supportive tissue of the brain. The tumors are aggressive and often spread quickly to other parts of the brain.

Brayfield’s friend Chris Rush, also a painter, said she is directly addressing her cancer diagnosis through art.

“She ended up with a camera on the deck of the Titanic,” he said. “She has the means and desire to report from the far reaches. In some ways, I think her new work is her most exciting work and certainly her most dangerous. She’s been unflinching at looking at her own suffering and demise. She’s fighting for her life and she’s painting about that.”

Rush said Brayfield put off her dreams of being an artist until after she retired. But once she picked up a paintbrush, she drew on a well of wisdom, experience and maturity. At the same time, she approached learning with as much curiosity as any young student.

Brayfield’s paintings from before her cancer diagnosis were usually realistic, although she sometimes added in abstract elements and collage. Her figures occasionally had anguished expressions or appeared lonely. At other times, her paintings were serene, showing a woman reading a book with a cat perched on her armchair, or a colorful grouping of fruit.

“In a lot of ways, she’s done her most exciting work after her diagnosis,” said her friend Victor Lodato, an author. “Before, she tried to be loose and wild, but she couldn’t break through to something more loose, chaotic and expressionistic. This broke down her more naturalistic tendencies.”

Her paintings now focus on faces and figures. Slashing brush strokes reveal her emotions.

Her new work now recalls Willem de Kooning’s aggressive paintings of women or Edvard Munch’s searing “The Scream.”

An exhibit of her pre- and post-diagnosis paintings called “The Anguish of Lost Words” is on display through Dec. 9 in the Marion Ady Building on Southern Oregon University’s Ashland campus.

Lodato said Brayfield is looking with a steady gaze at her own mortality in the paintings.

“Some people find them hard to look at and they’re a little scary,” he said. “She’s fearlessly looking at her own death. That’s not an easy thing for people. We don’t want to look.”

Despite her medical condition, Brayfield is pushing on.

She previously painted in a cramped loft inside her house. When word of her diagnosis spread, community members rallied and built a studio with floor-to-ceiling windows in her garden.

Brayfield is currently at work on a painting of a woman standing in water that expresses her confusion and uncertainty about the present and the future.

“She’s looking down at her shoes in the water, thinking, ‘Why am I standing in water? Is the water going to go up or down?’ “ she said.

Brayfield has trouble remembering names and the words for objects, and she searches for ways to express herself. Sometimes that means coining new terms and expressions — like a poet or a person trying to speak a foreign language.

At the same time, she still has a sense of humor, and she looks for ways to make jokes about her plight.

Whatever the future holds, her friends and family members said she continues to inspire them.

And Brayfield will continue to create.

As she noted in writing about her work, “Painting now allows me to delve into the mystery of existence, and to explore the endless variety, beauty and strangeness of the human form.”