Sunday, May 1, 2011

Jan Gyorfi-West. Painting through Life's Handicaps

Written by Kate Kitchen: 2006

Jan Gyorfi-West never thought of herself as an artist. "I 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 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-portraits 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 opportunity to present her extraordinary work and celebrate the talented artists living and working on this island. This exhibition captures a specific and unique moment in Cape Breton's cultural history and Jan must be congratulated for sensing this zeitgeist and documenting many of those who have made and continue to make enormous contributions to Cape Beton's visual and musical culture." --Suzanne A. Crowdis.

This experience has proved to Jan 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 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 had 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 school children 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. Jan'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 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, kntted 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 sprongtime in Belgium and he was tall, dark and handsome and could speak no English. He communicated with me in broken French and I did my best to improve my French so we could speak," she said. The six foot six 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 today, they will celebrate their 57th wedding 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 Ainslie where they ran a bed and breakfast, Ainslie 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 corner 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.

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 follow-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 still 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 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 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 delevop your talents, to use everything you have. You'll be much happier.

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