Student’s internal illness inspires external beauty

Gina Duque gave the ‘brush off’ to a number of local artists at a recent London fundraiser. Oh, no, it’s not what you think. The 23-year-old Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) student lacks the animosity and hostility to do so.

Duque was actually part of the London Children’s Museum Brush Off fundraiser, which brought together 20 of the city’s top up-and-coming artists for a type of round-robin competition.

“I was excited to be part of this. Sure, it will be scary, but that’s how you grow as a person,” said Duque, who did four paintings in just two hours. “That’s definitely a record for me.”

At Brush Off, artists were given a topic for a specific painting each round, and then the finished products were voted on by audience members, eliminating competitors until one artist was left standing. After the event, all the paintings were auctioned off, raising more than $18,000 for the museum’s London schools program.

“It’s not really a competition, more a popular vote, because it’s like comparing apples and oranges. There are so many different styles and they’re all great,” said Duque, who received two commission requests because of the event. “If you were to have the same artists do this on a different night with a different audience, you’d likely have a different winner. It was nice to be part of the evening and winning wasn’t expected at all.

Columbia born and raised, Duque was 11 when she and her mother moved to Canada, settling in Walkerton. Art was a big part of her upbringing. A paintbrush was her toy. She would attend Queen’s University, pursuing her BFA. Two years into the program, however, she was diagnosed with Leukemia at age 20.

“I had my treatments here in London at Victoria (Hospital) and my doctors were amazing. I didn’t want to leave that,” Duque said. “So, I looked into Western and was really surprised because I didn’t think they had the program I was looking for.”

While most first- and second-year artists are still trying to find themselves, Duque also had to shoulder her cancer diagnosis.

“When I got sick it was a completely different experience. It (painting) actually became a form of therapy for me,” she said. “After I was diagnosed, I started looking into these gorgeous pictures you get with MRIs – myself getting pictures of my body – and seeing what was happening under there was so fascinating to me. I really wanted to be able to capture what was thinking mentally as a way to heal.”

As an artist, Duque, who will graduate this fall, is now focused on exploring the relationships between human biology, spiritual beliefs and humanistic psychology in relation to illness. The use of imagery derived from various medical imaging devices is an approach that allows her to create a visual intrigue through the large-scale portrayal of microscopic subjects.

“Cancer really changes people. It can change them for the better or, sometimes, it can change them for the worse,” Duque said, who completed her treatment in November 2011. “For me, before I was diagnosed, I was a very Type A personality and always wanted things to go a certain way. I totally learned life’s not like that. You have to roll with the punches.

“Whatever comes your way is meant to come your way; whatever doesn’t, wasn’t meant to be.”

While she admits a lot of the brightness in her paintings, and in life, comes from her positive attitude, her “awesome” mother plays a huge role in being her champion. While some might discourage their children from the difficult world of the stereotypical starving artist, her mother is the complete opposite.

“Having such a big supporter is so great. She has always believed in me and keeps telling me ‘I know you’ll make it, whatever you choose to do,’” she said. “I put a lot of work into what I do and you shouldn’t be ashamed of it, no matter what you do.”

For the last few summers, Duque has benefitted from working at local museums and galleries and would ideally like to pursue this as a career.

“You go through this rigorous program trying to figure out what you want to say in this world, because it’s about making a statement; you don’t want your work just to look pretty on the wall, you want it to be more than that,” she said. “It is hard, for sure. It’s like making it in Hollywood or making it as a rock star, you have to really work hard at it and really want it.”