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Art Saved My Life

The Hobbyist Who Had a Dream

In memory of Jean Hazel d’Agenais (November 8, 1940 - April 16 2018)
By Sandra Topper, 2014

From 1986 through to 2002 my mother's artistic talent re-emerged from her childhood and adolescent years. Her creative energy was in a sense a form of personal therapy, producing over 120 pieces of art. She says that her passion was sort-of, an automatic process combining realism with impressionism.

When I was a child this painting was the only piece of art that decorated our very little and barren apartment. I didn't realize until recently that mum was the artist. I opened up the back of the frame and was astonished to discover that she had painted this piece when she was just 15 years old.

Inscribed on the reverse:

My first oil painting (1955) done when Mom and I took a painting course. The teacher had us put our paints in the pallet, handed us some greeting cards and said 'go to it'. The course was 6 weeks long - 6 nights, I was finished my painting the first night - Boring!"

Despite being a voracious reader my mother struggled academically during her youth and like many young folks her artistic aspirations where thwarted by a disruptive family life and by critical comments such as: "Get your head out of the clouds and focus on your studies. Art doesn't put food on the table. That one looks as though a polar bear shat on it."

As a young adult in the early 60's my mother's creative spirit further ended up on the back-burner when she became a single parent and I was sent to live with relatives while she headed to Toronto to find work and attend night school. A few years ago I learned that during this time my mother was coerced into giving up two babies for adoption. In hindsight it is clear to me now, why my mother's mental health waxed and waned throughout her entire life, in conjunction with her addictions.

Moving through many low level paying jobs her ambition to succeed and prove to her family that she could 'become someone' eventually paid off. By the time she was 46 years old she had written and published a text book and was the chief editor and policy writer for one of Ontario's largest crown corporations.

In 1986 my mom had begun to dabble again in art to help alleviate the stress from her high pressure career, and in the coming years her art served as an important facet in her survival.

In 1989 my mother and my 4 year old daughter were in a serious car accident. It was a multiple car pile-up. Miraculously my daughter was un-harmed, the car was a write-off, and luckily mom only sustained a compressed breast bone and torn muscles through her left shoulder. Mind you, the psychological distress combined with the legal and insurance battle went on for years.

Early one morning in 1990 my mother was awakened by the implosion of glass, her first instinct was to roll out of her bed and onto the floor. The horrendous boom and sound of shattering glass was reminiscent of the car accident during the previous year. Except this wasn’t psychological shell-shock, nor a dream, it was a real explosion resulting from a gas leak in a small industrial plaza behind her condominium.

In 1995 my mother was diagnosed with progressive systemic sclerosis an auto-immune disorder that impedes the function of the esophagus which resulted in her having to puree her food. Mom was finding it more and more difficult to concentrate at work and she began to avoid social functions that involved eating.

Given all that my mother had been through in her life, it's no wonder that her mental health issues worsened due to these traumatic incidences.

Time and time again she would say: 'It was my art that kept me alive."

In 1994 she held her first and only public art show and was just beaming with excitement. In a flyer she wrote:

"Having a hobby, trying new things, taking time to smell the roses are the ways in which I escape the talking heads and deal with this complicated and increasingly materialistic world. I believe we must unleash our creativity in order to feel a sense of self worth. I don't think it matters what we choose to do, gardening, reading, painting, woodworking, basket weaving. It's the doing that counts.

I'm so enthusiastic about my hobby, that I dream of changing the date on my birth certificate so I can retire and devote myself full-time to painting. Perhaps I'll go to New Mexico or France and take painting workshops."

In 1997 my mother's physical health was really beginning to decline and she began to loose weight due to her nearly liquid diet. Her anxiety was worsening and she rarely left the house. Her style of painting began to shift from beautiful landscapes and florals to fantasy-filled abstracts and a couple that truly represented despair (not featured here).

In the summer of 1997 while grieving the death of her mother, Jean began to paint Nirvana. Then on August 31, 1997 Princess Diana died and just 5 days later Mother Teresa passed away, my mother was devastated, and decided to dedicate Nirvana to these two great women. Her vision was to create a place where she and other folks might find peace. She told me:

"Heaven is any place, that you want it to be."

In 1999 at the age of 59 my mother hit rock bottom. Her depression was severe and her psychiatrist insisted that she needed electroconvulsive treatments.  From there on, she never returned to work and she came to live with me and my husband while we were raising our three children. For a couple of years she was literally catatonic, slowly her memory and lucidity returned, but she never really recovered.

Despite the fact that she also never made it to those painting workshops in France or New Mexico she did return to a former love, being close to nature.

"...or maybe because I paint for me and for the love of doing it, I'll just stick around and paint the forests and fields I've come to know and love."

Mom then went on to spend 10 years outdoors with our golden retriever dogs while cultivating our one acre woodlot into a mystical magical garden. Which she often referred to as:

"My Little piece of Heaven."

During the time that my mother lived with our family she continued to suffer from anxiety, agitation and depression. It wasn't until many years later with my studies in psychology that I began to question the rhetoric of mental health recovery. In conjunction with my prior holistic background it occurred to me that perhaps there is no one absolute treatment for mental healthiness and that recovery (if we should call it as such) does not have to be clinical.

I truly believe that if my mother had also received trauma focused therapy, and cognitive psychotherapy, in conjunction with peer support rather than being prescribed a barrage of medication and undergoing ECT's she might not have lost so many years of her life.

None-the-less, I would have to agree, her art was a contributing factor in saving her life, along with having a supportive family and simply providing her with a space where she could just be herself.💜 

At present (Nov. 2022) until otherwise stated $5.00 from the sale of these cards will be donated to The Green Wood Coalition located in Port Hope Ontario, to help supplement  the costs associated with purchasing supplies for their art programs.