A life-changing diagnosis and three years of suffering yield an unexpected fountain of inspiration for one young Brooklyn artist.
“Everyone tells you how strong you are and how brave you are, but you would do this too if this happened to you.”
Melissa Carroll adjusts a long tuft of hair from her wig as she speaks. We’re waiting to cross West 24th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. The cabs are full. It’s 5:45 p.m., fifteen minutes before Carroll’s first solo show in Chelsea. It just rained, so the air is thick but the light is perfect. She looks over and smiles.
“I’m kind of nervous,” she says, although her tone is light. In her white blazer pocket are two hand-painted wooden vials full of her medication.
We pass by men and women. They cast long glances at Carroll because she is undeniably and classically beautiful. Her large blue-green eyes sparkle, her complexion is milky white. There’s an internal and external quality to her beauty. She laughs easily, smiles often, is always friendly – effervescent, yet real.
“They said, ‘I can’t believe you do what you’re doing; I’d stay in bed all day and cry.’ Well, I did that, but I got bored, and did something,” she explains amidst the rhythmic clicking of her silver alligator skin clogs.
When we arrive outside Andrea Rosen’s Gallery 2, Carroll’s mother, Cecilia, and her aunt and uncle are outside. The sun is still bright.
The gallery is empty, but full of twenty paintings by Carroll, prepped for her one-day-only August show, where more than two hundred and fifty people will spill through the doors in three hours.
On our walk over, I tell her about the story, how I plan on telling it in colors.
“If Boston was gray, New York is bright blue…So what was New York before cancer?” I ask.
“Oh I don’t know,” she says. “Technicolor.”
* * *
The beginning of 2010 was a good time for Carroll. She had been in New York for five years, her paintings were beginning to show at galleries, she held a great job as painting assistant for internationally known painter Francesco Clemente, and she had a buzzing social life.
“I hung out with my friends, I dated, I had fun,” she recalls. “I was very active. I did a lot of stuff. There was always something to do.”
One night in December, Carroll met her friend Bernadette for drinks at Legion Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Towards the end of the night, in the dark at the bar, Bernadette accidentally nabbed Carroll’s foot with a bar stool. One of the long steel legs squished the top of her left foot, causing some pain.
They went about the rest of their night; Carroll went home to her apartment on Kingsland Avenue in nearby Greenpoint. However, the injury on Carroll’s foot curiously didn’t seem to go away.
She held off on going to a doctor because it didn’t bother her that much. She thought she had just sprained it. In February, when the injury became more painful and she felt a hard bump, she made an appointment to see a doctor at an emergency medical treatment center in Greenpoint.
The night before, she sat on a Brooklyn rooftop after a night out with Bernadette.
“I told her I knew it was going to be bad,” Carroll said. She could tell by the throbbing pain. “But I didn’t think it would be that bad.”
At the clinic, the doctor discovered a crushed third metatarsal bone, but more alarming was the abnormal bone mass around it. He performed a biopsy, which showed evidence of a malignant tumor.
The center offered a sliding scale, so Carroll, who didn’t have insurance, wouldn’t have to pay out of pocket for all the tests. Her mother, Cecilia, a math teacher, came down from New Hampshire and brought her back home for Easter to recover because she couldn’t walk.
Test after test. Another doctor in New Hampshire biopsied her foot again. Carroll listened to Black Sabbath’s “Evil Woman” in her ear buds while the doctor extracted a piece of bone mass from her foot. The test results were inconclusive, which did not help with her insurance problems. She needed a diagnosis to be covered by Medicaid.
“There’s nothing like spending your summer not being able to move, waiting to hear if you have cancer or not,” says Carroll. “I was Googling things. Just wondering.”
Physicians administered anesthesia for the third biopsy of her foot at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
At the time, Carroll had just finished reading Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, one woman’s story of her experience as a child with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer mainly found in children, which resulted in the removal of a third of her jaw.
At her childhood home, Carroll couldn’t sleep, afraid of what the results would bring.
The doctor called.
“The good news is, it’s not melanoma,” he said. “The bad news is it’s Ewing’s sarcoma.”
When they met, he told her, “‘I’m going to try to save your life.’”
It was June 2011. Carroll was twenty-eight years old. At Mass General, she was one of the youngest patients in the adult oncology ward.
* * *
Carroll’s landscape shifted from lively, bustling Brooklyn to Derry, New Hampshire. She moved back into the same home where as a child she painted and made art, and as a tween she practiced drums for her short-lived all-girl band, Mystic Spiral. Her parents set up a studio on the porch so she could paint and watch TV.
Doctors installed an implantable port into her chest to allow treatments to be administered directly into her vein.
On her first day of chemo at Mass General, she was notified that the cancer had spread to her pelvic lymph nodes and her knee.
“I was in shock,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Shit.’ And then you start chemo and then your hair falls out, you throw up and it just becomes hell.”
That week, Carroll and her mother went to a salon in Boston where she was custom-fitted for a wig. She picked one that looked identical to her long, wavy chestnut brown hair. Then the stylist cropped her hair into a chin-length bob.
Carroll responded immediately to the chemo, but she often came down with neutropenic fevers, which left her quarantined in the hospital for as long as a week. The chemo made her tired and sick. Many mornings, she vomited in the car while her parents drove her from New Hampshire to Boston.
During one hospitalization stint, she found strands of her hair on the pillow. It was when her hair started to come out in clumps that she knew she had to shave it.
In the upstairs bathroom of her parents’ house, Carroll closed the door and buzzed her head. She didn’t want her mother to see her do it.
“I was pissed. I didn’t want to have short hair,” she says. “I didn’t cry. When it’s happening, it’s so surreal that you don’t cry – sometimes.”
That night, she put on her new wig, took the first train back to New York and went directly to a friend’s house in Bushwick. She showed her friends the wig and then got right into the backyard swimming pool.
“What can you do?” she says. “Seeing my friends has been the best medicine.”
Carroll spent her twenty-ninth birthday in Brooklyn. Her friends took her out to dinner at Rosarito Fish Shack, where she ate king crab legs for the first time. One of her best friends, Sabine, made her a cake fashioned in the shape of Carroll’s cat, Houdini, who her parents gave her when she was diagnosed.
* * *
While at the hospital, she watched TV—Netflix, YouTube videos, the site Everything Is Terrible, which features kitschy clips from VHS videos. When she could, she painted watercolors from bed.
The paintings she created at Mass General are not her portrait work. “They’re these weird little scenarios,” she says, ranging from a magician in a top hat bowing before a set of red curtains to another of two children wearing masks, standing underneath a tree.
The toxicity of the oil paints she normally used made her sick, so she had to switch mediums.
“I had started getting more into watercolors but cancer forced me to really get into it,” says Carroll. “I like the fluidity and the happy accidents that occur with watercolors. I like how you don’t have total control, like life. It loosened me up after working in oils for so long.”
Carroll knew that she had to create a bald self-portrait, but she delayed it as much as possible.
A year and a half later, having survived seventeen cycles of chemo and multiple surgeries, she sat down and painted Self-portrait, the First on the studio porch at her parents’ house in New Hampshire.
The background is washed gray. Carroll’s shirt is light blue, her mouth is closed and serious, lips rose-colored, cheeks flushed, her eyes large and deep blue. She has no eyelashes, no eyebrows and her scalp is bald. The most striking aspect of the painting is the haunting, despondent and deep sadness in the eyes. They are searching and lifelike—one can feel the pain in the image.
At first, Carroll didn’t pursue the self-portraits too rigorously. She showed the painting to her close friend Ricardo Kugelmas, studio manager for Francesco Clemente, who encouraged her to keep painting and producing work.
After a year and a half of chemo and radiation, Carroll thought she had completed her treatment. She rang a bell at Mass General after radiation, a hospital tradition that marks the conclusion of treatment. “Everyone claps and they give you a certificate, signed by the nurses,” she says.
But now she had no job and no money. She felt deposited back into a world that she didn’t relate to anymore. In the one month that she was free of cancer treatment, Carroll found herself depressed and lost.
“How do u pick up your life after everything you’ve been through and you’re not sure about the future?” she wrote on her blog. “No one tells you what life’s going to be like after cancer treatment. After 17 cycles of chemo lasting a full year, 12 weeks of radiation, and multiple surgeries, the world asks you to be a normal young adult again, to start where you left off. It’s impossible! Ewing’s sarcoma not only messed with my body it messed with my head and broke my heart. Slowly I’m trying to pick up the pieces.”
One day, while surfing the Internet, Carroll discovered A Fresh Chapter, a nonprofit that funds volunteer trips for cancer survivors with the intent of find new meaning and direction after their battle with the disease. Carroll had always wanted to go to India. She wrote her application essay and felt a new sense of direction immediately.
A Fresh Chapter’s founder, Terri Wingham, also a cancer survivor, traveled from Canada to meet her at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“We gelled,” said Carroll. She was picked as one of the twelve survivors to make the trip.
With a new direction, Carroll looked forward to a change of scenery.
“I have nothing holding me back,” she noted in her blog. “After my last Chemo cycle my dad gave me a necklace of the Hindu god, Ganesha, who symbolizes New Beginnings. I am ready for my New Beginning!”
One month later, weeks before her trip, Carroll found out the cancer had returned to her lungs.
“That whole day was the worst day of my life,” she says. “It felt like a fucking nightmare…harsh reality punched me in the face that day.
“After that, I was like ‘I feel like I’m going to die soon. I am going to die from this.’ I didn’t think that before. I thought it’d just be a year of my life that sucked and I’d think back at it and be like ‘Whoa, I had cancer,’ but after that it just changed, everything changed after that.”
She returned to Mass General. She stayed at a hotel nearby to shorten the commute and allow friends to visit her.
The port was reinstalled in her chest. She started chemo again.
* * *
After completing one cycle, Carroll made her trip to India in February, despite the cancer’s recurrence. There, she taught art classes to third and fourth grade boys in the slums. She went to the Lotus Temple and said a prayer. She went to the Golden Temple and visited the Taj Mahal at sunrise. The country inspired her. She took photos and enjoyed the culture and people. She painted a portrait of another teacher and gave it to her.
“You have to go to India,” she told me. “Everything there is so beautiful – even if it’s a slum, it’s all different colors, you know? Purples and oranges and red and turquoise and you could match it with everything. The bindis and the shoes and the bangles. Everything has a story, and a history and a god. I told myself, ‘You’re not going to die in the next two weeks of cancer.’ I took a break from my life for a little bit, and lived in the moment as much as possible.”
In Delhi, she was hospitalized for a fever, and the doctors were kind. They commended her on her spirit when they found out she had traveled to India with cancer.
Her hair, which had just begun to grow back, now began falling out again from the new chemo. But she returned to the U.S. with a renewed sense of purpose. She told Clemente, who is Hindu, that she understood his work more.
* * *
In March 2013, Carroll transferred to New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and moved back to her apartment in Brooklyn full-time. She made friends at chemo treatment, including her roommate Kaylin Andres, a fashion designer, writer and one of the stars of the second season of MTV’s reality show The World of Jenks. Kaylin also had Ewing’s sarcoma.
“What’s really getting me through these dark days is my cancer friends,” Carroll wrote on her blog on May 2, 2013. “When I was so sick at Mass General Hospital I closed myself off to the world, stayed in a room during my infusions and only spoke to my nurses. This time I sit in the recliners at Sloan with a bunch of other young adults with serious cancers like my own.”
The pediatrics ward where she was placed is bright and blue, catering to young people.
“It’s cool, you have to see it,” she says. “There’s a lot of light.”
Now, Carroll has two weeks on chemo, then one week off. A normal day during a chemo week consists of waking up, “usually barfing,” taking a car into the city for chemo, undergoing treatment, taking a cab back home to Brooklyn, sleeping, watching TV (“Game of Thrones – I never thought I’d get into it”), smoking pot to take the nausea away, and painting or seeing friends if she has the energy.
Having returned to Brooklyn life, she is taking her painting more seriously.
“I knew that I had to do something with my work because I didn’t and don’t know how much time I have left,” she says. “Art has always been the most important thing to me.”
She started devising a plan with Andres for a show in New York City.
She painted Self-portrait, with Mask, which features her in a black beanie, short tufts of hair peeking out. She’s wearing a hospital mask. Her eyes pierce and search, yet they’re stony. In Every Time an Eyelash Falls Out I Make a Wish, she wears a black hoodie. The port in her chest is visible, and the eyelashes that have fallen out rest underneath each blue eye. In Relapse, which refers to the day she found out about her recurrence, hospital bracelets are stacked on her wrist. The look of devastation in the eyes is almost palpable.
Finally, in What Would I Do Without You? she is pictured in her hospital gown. Her eyes are green, and looking up, in a deeply sad, almost wondrous stare. She is surrounded by flowers of all colors – reds and oranges and magenta and purple and green. She says she painted this one in honor of her friends. “It could be seen as one of the happiest paintings, but it also could be seen as one of the saddest,” she says.
“It became a series, and all these ideas of different topics about cancer that no one would know about unless they had cancer, and just trying to capture those situations,” says Carroll. “Like what it’s like to be in bed all the time, or in the chemo room.”
She painted many of the self-portraits from bed. Frida Kahlo’s work and story resonated with her. Kahlo, after suffering a severe life-threatening and debilitating injury – a bus accident left her in a full body cast – painted self-portraits from her bed using a portable easel and a mirror attached to her bed canopy’s underside.
Although her artistic influences range from Lucian Freud to Egon Schiele, Carroll’s Recurrence series was mainly “inspired by a need to explain to others the world I live in, and so many others do, that is such a secret. I really had to reach inside and put myself out there, vulnerable and all.”
For Carroll, putting such personal experiences on paper was both physically and emotionally taxing, but she was inspired by her friends who had battled cancer.
“I am inspired by the spirit that we have kept when cancer takes everything else,” she says. “Cancer cuts the bullshit and you know what’s important in life when you are facing mortality.”
Kugelmas, now a close friend, was touched by the new works, and says he was also impressed by the quality.
“They are technically great watercolors,” he says. “The relapse brought this sense of mortality, which ignited her impulse to create these self-portraits.”
Kugelmas encouraged her to keep painting and to exhibit her work. He purchased several pieces and shared them with artists and gallerists he knew. Eventually, the prestigious Andrea Rosen Gallery saw her paintings and granted her a one-day show on August 22. Carroll had three months to complete the works.
Doing her best to live in the moment, she took a quick trip to Vegas four months before the show with her female friends who have battled cancer. Suleika Jaouad, a leukemia survivor, New York Times columnist and health advocate, was speaking at the OMG! 2013 Cancer Summit for Young Adults. On the last day of their trip, Andres and Carroll went out to the desert and shot AK-47’s at pictures of their tumors that a friend had drawn on soda cans. Then they went to a tattoo parlor called “Precious Slut” and got matching tattoos of spades on their arms.
She saw Tom Petty in concert, tailgated at Fleetwood Mac, went swimming with dolphins in St. Thomas, got eight tattoos and tried to see friends as much as possible. And when she could, she painted her series of self-portraits. They represented a vast departure from her typical oils of other people.
“I used to paint other people, but being so isolated all the time and going through cancer has made me focus on myself more and express what it’s like to be in this insane cancer world,” she says. “It’s completely different than my old life. I think a lot of my friends see me with a wig on and makeup when I’m not feeling so sick. I wanted to show the reality of what it’s like and not glamorize cancer.”
In May of 2013, five months after the recurrence, Carroll finally received some good news about her health. Her scans revealed that the tumors were shrinking.
“My dad came with me to my appointment for my scan results before chemo,” she wrote on her blog. “As soon as we got the good news that my tumors have all shrank and there is no evidence of new disease anywhere, we both could just breathe. I haven’t felt like crying from happiness in so long.”
Throughout the summer, she continued painting her Recurrence series, which included her self-portraits, as well as portraits of friends who have battled or are still battling cancer.
The week before the Andrea Rosen show, Carroll was painting a self-portrait called Storm, a slate blue painting in which she prepares to cut off a long braid of her hair as a raven sits on her shoulders. While painting, she experienced extreme pain on her side, along with a fever and excessive vomiting. She took a cab to the hospital. Doctors found she had developed appendicitis from one of the chemo drugs. They put her on morphine, and she stayed for five days. Friends visited with balloons. Terri Wingham from A Fresh Chapter stopped by. Kugelmas brought her paintings to the hospital and she signed them in her hospital bed, attached to an IV and a morphine drip.
Carroll was released six days before her show.
* * *
The gallery was packed that night. Carroll’s portraits—in which she is mainly pictured without hair and in pain, chronicling her journey through cancer—were lined up around the white room. Carroll stood in the center of the crowd, laughing and smiling.
Over the course of the night, dozens of friends showed up, including her childhood art teacher, her nurses, fellow artists, musicians, designers and former co-workers from her early days as a swim instructor in New York. With the port still lodged in her chest, an anti-nausea patch affixed behind her ear and a compression stocking wrapped around her left leg, which had developed lymphedema, Carroll did not sit down once. Her mom FaceTimed the event with her iPhone so that her father, Paul, an Irish balladeer who was in Ireland for work, could watch. Each painting sold. Salman Rushdie purchased a self-portrait that references her time in India.
“It was epic, a dream come true. It was like a wedding to myself, ” she said after the show ended.
Carroll returned to chemo the following Monday. She sent me a text that read: “My carriage turns back into a pumpkin again.”
She was sick from the treatment again that week. But she continues painting when she is able. There is a short waiting list to buy her paintings.
“You really need to keep a sense of humor as much as possible,” she wrote on her blog three days before her show, “because this is life no matter how much it didn’t go our way, it is still life. We are all still here!”
* * *
Postscript: Melissa Anne Carroll died on March 31, 2014 after a three-year battle with Ewing’s Sarcoma. On Sunday, April 27, her friends and family celebrated her life at Acme Studios in Brooklyn, where her paintings once again lined the room. One of her final paintings was featured on the cover of the June issue of Poets and Artists Magazine. A Fresh Chapter has created the Melissa Carroll Legacy Fund to help other patients fund trips like Melissa’s trip to India.
Jaime Lowe is a Brooklyn-based writer, photographer, and artist.
Tara Israel is Narratively’s photo editor, born and raised among the local fishermen and seasonal Manhattanites of East Hampton and currently residing in New York City. You can read about some of her recent projects and see photos of the questionable company she keeps at thetisraelirepublic.tumblr.com.