A tree that re­fuses to die mir­rors an artist’s life

Vancouver Sun - - Arts & Life - BY KEVIN GRIF­FIN VAN­COU­VER SUN

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.

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