From a distance, the black ink shapes look sharp and angular, like mechanized birds.
But up close, they’re stranger creatures, composed of curved lines and even smaller animals. In one drawing, what could be a torso is actually a fish. The drawings would be at home in a gallery alongside the work of famed Haida artist Bill Reid.
“I certainly had an interest in northwest native art in the past, but it’s not like I’m trying to imitate it,” says artist David McConkey, who divides his time between Ontario and Change Islands. “It’s just part of my experience at this point. I don’t start with an image in mind. I let the lines take me where they want to go, and I do what feels good — it is what it is. But it does have that spiritual aspect to me.”
His figures seem like they’re all in motion. And that makes perfect sense, given McConkey’s background.
The long-distance runner has run more than 50 regular marathons, which clock in at 42.2 kilometres each. But he’s also run races like the Canadian Death Race, whose course covers 125 kilometres through the Rocky Mountains, with 17,000 feet of elevation change and a major river crossing.
He ran it in 2003, in 15 hours and 33 minutes, and finished second overall. He was 48.
Now, at 57, he’s still running. And though the distances are much shorter, they have a very different meaning to him.
In the fall of 2010, McConkey was having pain in his lower back when he ran. After visits to massage therapists, chiropractors and doctors, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, or cancer of the plasma cells, a type of white blood cells responsible for producing antibodies. The infected cells wind up in the bone marrow, edging out healthy cells, and sometimes causing fractures in the bones. Most people aren’t diagnosed until after a bone fracture, he says.
“Being a runner put me in a good position to deal with this,” he says. “My oldest daughter said, ‘I’m so angry that you take such good care of yourself and this happened,’ but I’m not angry about it. I’m just really happy that I took care of myself. I feel like I’m younger and healthier than many people who have this, I have access to resources, and I have the capacity to advocate for myself and manage my health and well-being in a manner. Some people don’t have that, so I feel very fortunate.”
With that in mind, McConkey takes a very different approach to his experience with multiple myeloma. For one, he doesn’t think of himself as a patient.
“I find that calling myself a patient sounds passive,” he says. “If I had HIV, I wouldn’t be a patient, I’d be a person living with HIV. Well, I have multiple myeloma, I’m a person living with multiple myeloma. And I don’t look at this as a battle or a fight. I’m taking care of myself and it’s a part of me that’s in there that I’m dealing with. It is what it is, and I’m going to do what I need to do in order to take care of myself, and so far, I’m doing great.”
At first, McConkey’s doctors were adamant that he stop running. But running, says McConkey, is an essential part of his self-care, both mentally and physically. So he went to see a specialist in sports medicine.
“I said to him, ‘I’m not looking for your permission,’” he laughs. “I am looking for risk reduction. And he helped me.”
McConkey also found other runners who had multiple myeloma to use as reference points.
“This is life-living,” he says. “This is me living my life. You hear stats about 80 or 90 per cent of people with multiple myeloma have such and such an outcome, but what about that other 20 or 10 per cent? You want to strive to be the exception, as opposed to resigning yourself to the majority. It’s only stats. If things happen, they happen. If they don’t, they don’t, you just go on.”
McConkey has even found opportunity in his diagnosis, with his art. Originally diagnosed with what is called “smouldering” multiple myeloma, his doctors were content to monitor him and hold off on treatment. But a year after his diagnosis, they told him that it was time to start chemotherapy. The steroids that he took as part of that chemotherapy kept him up at night. Having been a casual artist since he was a teenager, he decided that he’d use his wakeful nights wisely. So he picked up some paper and his pens and began drawing in earnest.
“It’s been a very prolific time,” he smiles. “But again, it hasn’t been just about this medical experience. I see reflections of all aspects of my life in these drawings, I don’t just see where I was with the chemo, and that’s not what inspires them. The drawings let me go wherever I wanted, and beyond what was happening with my treatment.”
He’s since had exhibitions at Hava Java and The Sprout, and he’s applied to the Rogue Gallery at the Eastern Edge. He says he is using his art as a way to raise awareness about multiple myeloma and, most importantly, living well with it.
Now in his third round of treatment with a drug called Revlimid, McConkey is seeing excellent results. And like each of his drawings, he’s gotten there unexpectedly, by just letting things happen.
“I was supposed to be on a different course of medication and treatment right now,” he says. “We tried a few things. They didn’t work, but this did. So I’m going with it. I’ll probably have a stem cell transplant at the end of the summer, and I’m not nervous about it. I’m looking forward to it as a stepping-stone that’s going to get me where I want to be.”
Though it may seem contradictory, McConkey learned to accept the unknown from his running life, a life that requires steadfast planning and training.
“My best marathon time was 2:42, at the Ottawa marathon,” he says.
“So, I decided that I was going to do the Honolulu marathon, and I trained to run it in less than 2:40. But the night before, a bunch of us got food poisoning at the official carbo-load meal! So, it just goes to show, it doesn’t matter what you do, there are just certain things that are out of your control. And you just have to take them in stride.”