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Artist Charmaine Wheatley and her painting of her grandfather, which writer Jana Pruden returned to her.The Globe and Mail

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A few weeks ago, I found a painting at a Calgary thrift store and, when I turned it over, discovered it had been painted by a friend of mine when we were in art school together in Halifax. I got in touch with my friend that night, and learned it was a portrait of her grandfather, which had been borrowed by a filmmaker in 1994 and never returned. (Or “stolen,” depending how charitable you feel.)

I’m Jana Pruden, a feature reporter for The Globe and Mail based in Edmonton, and my friend, Charmaine Wheatley, is an artist in New York. We decided to meet in Toronto, so I could return the painting to her and we could catch up on the past 24 years (Charmaine and her painting are pictured above).

We met at the South-Western Bathhouse, thanks to Zosia Bielski’s piece on Toronto’s suburban saunas. There, as we steamed and sweated and sipped dill pickle juice and vodka, Charmaine told me she thought often about her missing painting, but wasn’t entirely surprised to have it resurface. She said people don’t just throw away good paintings. She was confident the value of her work would be appreciated, and it was.

Lately it seems increasing attention is being been paid to the vision and contribution of women in our culture, both artistic and otherwise. This is demonstrated in Overlooked, a new project by The New York Times that features obituaries of women who were not recognized, or not recognized properly, at the time of their deaths. As the introduction to the project notes, “who gets remembered – and how – inherently involves judgement. To look back at the obituary archives can, therefore, be a stark lesson in how society valued various achievements and achievers.”

Among the first 15 obituaries is this interesting piece on seminal photographer Diane Arbus. Arbus’s work has had an incalculable impact on generations of other artists and photographers, and she was a huge influence when Charmaine and I were in art school together in Halifax all those years ago. It’s interesting to imagine the effect of what Arbus saw – and then chose to capture on film – on the way other women have perceived and depicted the world.

Truly seeing the contributions and work of women, and in turn paying attention to what women see, matters. Recently, my friend Amber Bracken wrote about the paucity of women photojournalists in Canada, looking specifically at how the vast majority of coverage of this year’s Women’s March was done by male photographers. As Amber wrote, “A diverse media matters because we cannot serve the public – or do justice to the complex issues that affect us all – if all we offer is a singular perspective.”

In her recent piece, The male glance: how we fail to take women’s stories seriously, Lili Loofbourow looks at how we have not only been less exposed to women’s stories but may also bring a harsher lens to them when we are, including judging women’s appearances more critically, and viewing female stories, characters and narratives in a superficial and dismissive way.

As she writes, “We all do it, and it is ruining our ability to see good art. The effects are poisonous and cumulative, and have resulted in a huge talent drain. We have been hemorrhaging great work for decades, partly because we are so bad at seeing it.”

It appears that may finally be changing.

But this new kind of seeing will also require many adjustments – including women being comfortable being seen in new and different ways, even in ways that we have been long taught were unflattering, or unladylike, or simply too much.

As Globe and Mail columnist Elizabeth Renzetti writes in her new book of essays, Shrewed, “I did try, for a little while, to be smaller and quieter. It never lasted, though. I was too lazy. No one tells you the effort that is required in diminishment; it takes an enormous amount of energy to constrict yourself …

“So what I would like to say to you young women out there is: Be large. Be as large as you’d like to be. Take up the room that is yours. Spread into every crack and corner and wide plain of this magnificent world. Sit with your legs apart on the subway until a man is forced, politely, to ask you to slide over so he can have a seat.”

What else we’re reading:

I loved this feature about Canadian Press reporter Michelle McQuigge. I was struck by how many people worked with McQuigge by phone but had never met her in person, and therefore had absolutely no idea she was blind. Not only is she a respected reporter and editor by any possible measure, living with a disability clearly brings a unique perspective to her work, both in the stories she finds and in her connection with her subjects. As she says in this profile, “I do feel that my own lived experience with disability has helped with some interview subjects to put them at ease and make them recognize that I’m not approaching this subject from a theoretical perspective, that I have some understanding of the issues that they’re trying to elaborate on.”

Inspiring us:

My friend Candace Cook is living with metastatic breast cancer, an advanced cancer with a terminal diagnosis, though that’s not how she and her husband would describe it.

“Tim and I like to look at this as a chronic disease versus a life sentence,” says the 45-year-old Edmonton mother of one. “We try not to look at it as a terminal illness or an advanced illness, because as soon as you put that label on it, it gets scarier. So for us, it’s just something I have to control and manage for the rest of my life. It’s all about perspective, right?”

From the beginning, Candace has faced this diagnosis with grace, positivity and humour, making the most of every day while also devoting herself to an aggressive treatment regime, and participating in every possible trial and study.

“My approach to dealing with it has been in a way strategic, in that Tim and I have a mantra and we have since day one,” she says. “And that is ‘whatever it takes,’ first of all, and secondly, ’let’s just focus on today.’ The challenge with having every cancer, but particularly metastatic cancer, is that as soon as you start looking down the road, it gets really awful. So I intentionally focus on today.”

It’s not always easy. In dark periods, Candace says she and Tim have intentionally refocused on what they know, and on the things around them that make them happy and grateful.

“When I was first diagnosed with metastatic, all I could think about was I will never see my child grow up, I’m never going to watch him get married, I’m never going to know my grandchildren. And those are awful things to have to think about,” she says. “But as soon as you refocus yourself on today, and what you know today, things get a lot brighter.

“The diagnosis has given me perspective, and so I’m able to appreciate even more than I did in the past,” she says. “I have moments all the time which are true gifts, where I stop and I look at what’s happening around me and I think, ‘How grateful am I for this, right now, in this moment?’ Just hanging with my son, reading a book together. Those small moments that a lot of other people take for granted or don’t stop and think about, I do, on a regular basis.”

Candace’s friends and admirers (and they are numerous), describe her over and over as an inspiration, someone who motivates others with her own bravery and strength. I think of her as a constant example of how to live a meaningful, joyous and beautiful life in any circumstance.

In February, Candace marked the seven-year anniversary of her first breast cancer diagnosis, writing on Facebook: “Thank God I am still here! I am so grateful for the last seven years; every beautiful, joyful, scary, sad, insane, stressful day. Every one of them is a gift and I can never forget that now. I hope you don’t either.”

You can read more about Candace’s experience in her own words here, talking about both her cancer journey and her experience with the Alberta Cancer Exercise study.

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