An Interview with Jack Coggins, Mouth Painter

(with Jeff Natchigall, interviewer)
Well, the Irish are nothing if they’re not obsessive. Once we latch on to something we explore it passionately for as long as it takes until we know the medium… like poetry it’s very elusive… it’s got a rhythm and an excitement to it, that I find very passionate.
I’ve explored music. I’ve explored the physical aspect of my being with tai chi… concentrating on your surroundings and emptying your mind. I also practice Transcendental Meditation which allows me to explore deep relaxation… and now trying to heal my body… to the best of my ability, but also to heal my mind and adapt to new things that will express my creative talent. So my art has become my passion… as much as history, because in many ways, the images I paint are history; History of our totems; History of our Inukshuk; History of the Tori Gate. All these represent symbols that are universal in all of us. Through my art I’ve discovered images that help my healing process that are autobiographical… like the Inukshuks, the stone men against the prairie landscape in winter… that’s me, that I’m frozen in stone because I have so little use of my body. So I’m there observing the coming, the changing of the seasons. The coming of winter… the beginning of spring… blossoming into summer, and then into fall, autumn… we can see the world in a blade of grass.
I have so much energy. I expressed it through my teaching. I expressed it through my music. I expressed it through my cycling… not so much observing the landscape, but experiencing it… I cycled for 55 years until my accident… and then it all ended abruptly.
You’ve tapped a source of energy… I’ve been so frustrated in my own personal life that I was ready to explode with anger and thoughts of self destruction and just to end the misery… and art gave me another life again, and you were a big part of that.
The art has restored my self-esteem, teaching restores my self esteem. I still have a head.

You have been a life saver for so many people. When I first arrived at Sherbrooke there were no activities except for an elderly generation… for a younger group of people like myself, Dennis and Matt Proctor… there was virtually nothing for us here except physical care. As a consequence, when you brought the art program and told me I could paint… even though I didn’t have the use of my hands… that was my first step in beginning of my second life.
My task, to the best of my ability, is to publicize this effort, and how it’s a creative experience for all residents in the community and a life saver for people who are desperately seeking to communicate… because they cannot… verbally… but they can with their hands or with their head… I’ve seen transformations in people at Sherbrooke. The art program has alleviated boredom and empowered the helpless.

The emphasis on health in Western society is more an emphasis on symptomatic care of illnesses… in many ways the institutional aspect of health dehumanizes the people who are in the system. The physical body is addressed, but the mental body is not, the spirit is not. That’s why you feel so imprisoned in a body… that has essentially betrayed us. You can no longer use it as a tool to explore the world… and each other. So what we have left is what we will use to address not only the symptoms of our disease, but the inner source of it and from it try to build a life again, with the limitations we have to face.
We’ve become isolated from the community. I was blessed, I realized, coming to Sherbrooke because although I had trouble adapting to the institutional life at Sherbrooke, I began to realize more and more… that I was indeed blessed to be here… because the care givers are indeed care givers… they are sincere, heartfelt, caring, considerate and thoughtful.

The cooperation that we have amongst the group has been fuelling our own creative desires… all you’ve done is implemented and channelled that energy to show the larger community what is available in institutions that cry desperately for volunteers. So in many ways, you gave us a voice, you gave us a vision and we showed you what that vision was. You are the best thing that has happened to Sherbrooke in a long, long time.

Definitely. I consider everyone an artist, just different mediums to express things… singing, music, art, moving in the world, being at peace with yourself… with your fellows. Art is life.

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