A tree that refuses to die mirrors an artist’s life
THE LAZARUS TREE New works by Tiko Kerr Winsor Gallery
April 3 – 27
The first time you look at Tiko Kerr’s painting The Lazarus Tree you might do a double-take. For a Vancouverite, it depicts the kind of scene that probably looks familiar even if you just can’t place it right away.
The acrylic on canvas work shows the bright yellow crown of a tree against a violet-blue sky. The point of view of the painting is from the water so you can see the semi-circle of the tree’s full crown reflected like a shimmering double on the surface. Joined together, the two halves of the tree make a whole.
Bisecting the picture plane is an undulating low-rise railing that also looks familiar. The railing may be the giveaway clue because it looks just like the one around the Stanley Park Seawall along the westernmost edge of Coal Harbour.
The tree depicted in the work is in fact the grand old catalpa that once spread its leaves over the seawall at the entrance to the park until it was uprooted by the wind storm of December 2006.
The painting is the centrepiece of a new exhibition of works by Kerr, opening Thursday at the Winsor Gallery on south Granville in Vancouver.
The works in the exhibition fall into two themes. One is composed of 17 acrylic paintings on canvas and board showing various scenes from the point of view of a rower on the water in and around Coal Harbour. When the works are hung in the gallery, they’ll replicate what the harbour looks like from the point of view of a rower.
For Kerr, a rower, the catalpa tree was a marker he used to guide himself on his scull back into the Vancouver Rowing Club.
“It was always the thing that drew me,” Kerr said in an interview in his studio in east Vancouver.
“It had such an interesting colour and shape — I could get a quick bearing. Now I look and there’s nothing on the horizon — but it’s there in spirit.”
Kerr choose the contrasting yellow and violets and the piercing green in his painting from a work by Vincent Van Gogh called The Rising of Lazarus. He named his painting after the Biblical character who rose from the dead because of the way the catalpa tree has refused to die —and how that resurrection has paralleled his own recovery from advanced AIDS.
The catalpa tree still lies close to where it once stood. It’s now uprooted and lying on its side by the bike and pedestrian path. Completely stripped of leaves and looking all but dead, the tree last year started sprouting new shoots.
Like the tree, Kerr himself has come back from the brink of death. By December 2005, Kerr had developed resistance to all forms of HIV medication and therapies that he’d been taking since his initial diagnosis in the mid-1980s. His viral load — a measurement of the human immun- odeficiency virus in his blood — had risen to levels so high doctors feared he would be dead within a year. His CD4 count, which refers to the number of cells that fight infection, had fallen to 100. A CD4 count below 200 leaves a person open to the numerous opportunistic infections associated with AIDS.
His doctors had discovered a new experimental treatment with two unlicensed AIDS drugs called TMC114 and TMC 125. Health Canada, however, wouldn’t let Kerr or any other Canadian try the new drugs.
So Kerr started a public media campaign that recalled some of the earlier AIDS activism of the 1980s and 1990s. As part of the campaign, he painted a work called My government is trying to kill me.
By January 2007 Health Canada relented. Kerr became one of a handful of people in the country allowed to take the new anti-AIDS treatment.
Within five days of taking the experimental medication, Kerr’s viral load dropped by 90 per cent. Within a month, the virus become undetectable — meaning there were fewer than 50 copies per millilitre of blood.
His remarkable recovery meant he could resume rowing again. Now he’s healthy enough to hit the water four times a week, along with regular visits to the gym.
The other theme of the works in the exhibition have to do with Kerr’s struggle with Health Canada.
For the exhibition, he’ll have completed seven self-portraits showing how his face has recorded the ravages of AIDS.
One of the side effects of the antiviral drugs used to treat HIV is lipodystrophy, the loss of fat on the body, especially around the face. It can lead to a unique gaunt look with the skin adhering to the skull at the temples and sunken cheeks. Wherever he went, Kerr was marked on his face for everyone to see.
“You’re a walking acknowledgement that you’re suffering from HIV. It’s such a hard thing to live with,” he said. “It really disfigures you.”
Kerr has created uneven surfaces of closely packed syringes, drug bottles and vials. Attached with a gel medium to wood panel and then gessoed — the white primer used by painters to prepare the surface — Kerr painted his self-portraits on the surface of the medical paraphernalia.
In A Knife Called Defiance, Kerr painted himself in a position of authority as a man refusing to go gently into the night.
By the time of the interview, Kerr hadn’t finished the final selfportrait. On a surface of pill bottles and syringes, Kerr plans to paint a self-portrait showing how he’s regained his health thanks to the experimental drug regimen.
“The two bodies of work can be joined under the umbrella of my journey,” Kerr said.
“One is my physiological journey. The other is more psychological. It’s represented by this Lazarus tree, it being a marker I used for a very long time, and how it went away and then came back for a second life.”
Art on display at the Tiko Kerr exhibition, The Lazarus Tree, at Winsor Gallery from April 3 to 27. Clockwise from top left: A Knife Called Defiance; The Lazarus Tree; Night Row; First Snowfall, North Shore; Houseboat Suite and Tiko Kerr with some of his works.