Community profile: Medical diagnosis changes Carbondale man’s life and his art
For Brian Colley, the only downside of treating his pituitary issue is having to relearn his parts in his singing group, The Cowboy Corral, as he’s gone from tenor to bass.
The Carbondale artist, 40, found out two years ago that he has had a growth on his pituitary gland since he was 12.
“They would go in and just get it out, but it’s back there in a tricky spot,” he said.
The growth is right on his optic nerve, meaning if it gets bigger he could lose his vision.
“They said, ‘If it gets bigger you might go blind,’ which is always fun to hear when you’re an artist, or anyone for that matter,” he said.
Thankfully, the growth is not getting bigger. Colley said he gets scans every six to nine months, and it is holding steady.
Colley, gallery manager for Carbondale Arts, said that because of the growth he produces no testosterone — he has less than women do — and is now taking a supplement.
“It’s kind of like going through puberty without growth hormones,” he said.
In one of The Cowboy Corral photos he’s sporting a fake mustache. The supplement hasn’t changed the need for that prop.
“I have some more hair on my face but not that much,” he said.
Art helps him deal with the changes he’s going through. His solo show “Self-Reflected Universe” — which wrapped up at The Launchpad in Carbondale on Friday — was like art therapy for him.
“It was very therapeutic to take what’s inside of me — what I’m going through emotionally — and put that physically outside of my body onto a panel or canvas. There’s something about making it an object outside of me that can help me separate it from myself so I’m not identifying as ‘the problem is me,’” he said.
It could even be seen as a positive experience borne from a negative one.
“You can actually transfer what’s inside your head, like in your imagination, and you can put it out there and face it. There’s some power in that. I hadn’t really experienced that before.”
Due to his upbringing in Texas, Colley could not have known about the growth or what to do about it.
“I grew up in a religion that didn’t do doctors or medical anything — Christian Science,” he said.
He credits his sister with pushing him to see a doctor.
“My sister is very persuasive and compassionate and concerned,” he said.
“I don’t know if I was as surprised to learn about his tumor as he was. I knew that something wasn’t right with his health and had been encouraging him to go get it checked out for some time,” his sister Deborah Colley said in an email. She formerly worked at Carbondale Arts and helped establish and manage Dance Initiative, The Launchpad and CoMotion. She still lives in Carbondale but is doing freelance work.
It hasn’t been easy since the diagnosis.
“The past two years have just kind of shattered everything. Fortunately, therapy is good. I had no idea how much I needed it. … It’s been a lot to wrap my head around, so to speak,” he said.
Colley said it was a big shift in his world going from growing up without any medical care to frequent trips to Denver for blood tests and MRIs and having to think about brain surgery.
“And then trying to talk to my parents about things and understanding why they made decisions that they made,” he said.
“The hardest part since [the diagnosis] has been watching him go through the growing pains of recalibrating his life,” Deborah Colley said.
His sister is the reason he moved to Carbondale. Her husband, Morgan Williams, got a job at Colorado Rocky Mountain School in 2008 or so, and after visiting the couple Colley moved in 2010.
The town apparently agrees with Colley.
“It’s the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere [since leaving] school,” he said. “The community’s been great; it’s so supportive of creative people.”
And it’s a creative district, which is where his passion lies.
Colley keeps himself busy with illustrations, graphics, print making and paintings.
Locals may have seen his illustrations and graphic work on designs for Bonedale Bike Week and the 2014 Carbondale Mountain Fair.
He paints in several mediums as well.
“I thought for a while that watercolor was my main medium. … But then I got tired of framing everything; it’s so expensive,” he said.
Colley was inspired by Carbondale artist Chris Erickson, who he said paints acrylic on panels. Colley said not only are no frames required but “it can float off the wall and make a cool shadow.”
Amy Kimberly, Carbondale Arts executive director, is a fan of Colley’s art.
“I always say that if I quit this job I would love to be his art dealer/representative, because I think the art he creates is brilliant. It really does something to me personally, and I see it do things to other people as well, whether it be joy, laughter, even being perplexed. It doesn’t bore you,” she said.
He’s been at it for a long time.
“I’ve always been impressed with his artistic skill. He was able to create with his hands since he was incredibly young. I know we have the artwork stored away to show it. Drawing, painting, sculpting, etc., have always come very naturally to him,” Deb Colley said.
Colley also does a comic for the Sopris Sun newspaper in Carbondale.
Sitting in a tin can
“Self-Reflected Universe” featured a lot of astronaut images. Colley traces that back to a community college watercolor class in Texas.
“The guy I took it from was really into having a message in your art,” he said.
For him, being alone in a big city and not really knowing who he was, the astronaut represented “observing life instead of participating in it.”
Although that feeling of solitude is behind him, the astronaut is not.
“I thought I was going to give it up a few years ago. I thought I had made peace with that, but it just keeps coming up, and it’s such a good image. It keeps changing for me,” he said.
While it still represents the solitary observer, it’s found new meaning during the pandemic.
“During COVID everyone’s wearing masks and [being] totally separate from other people. It’s like keeping yourself in your own quarantine spaceship,” he said.
The artwork for the show was not what he originally envisioned. It was the first time he painted himself in those helmets.
“I assumed that was going to be other people [I painted] and how we can find connections and how we can see ourself in other people and what they’re going through,” he said.
Between the time he proposed the show and its fruition he got his diagnosis, and that caused the show to pull a 180.
“‘Self-reflected Universe’ changed focus from other people to my experience with the hope that people could get relate,” he said.
People may have, as Colley said he sold more pieces from that show than he has in a while.
“I sold a dozen or more pieces, mostly small pieces,” he said.
Colley once painted David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust strumming a ukulele, an instrument Colley not only knows how to play but knows how to build.
“I went to Hawaii … and built my own concert size ukulele,” he said.
He even has a made-up one-man band called Ukulele Underwhelm.
He has a history with stringed instruments. He grew up playing the violin and still has his grandfather’s violin.
“He was very natural at the violin, but he never practiced,” said Deborah Colley.
He also has a history with stringed sports equipment, though those that use a paddle suffice.
He grew up playing tennis and plays pickle ball occasionally in town. His studio mate at SAW had a ping-pong table, and that provided a distraction from creating art.
Colley also has an interest in birds, though they have only occasionally shown up in his work.
“If I had more time to do other things I’d probably go hang out with the Roaring Fork Audubon group and look at birds,” he said.
Music and other hobbies take a back seat to his art, though.
“The art thing fills up so many weekends and evenings,” he said.
Colley painted a mural outside The Launchpad using ink made from carbon emissions that was part of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency’s Imagine Climate Billboard Project. Kimberly said there were also murals in Aspen, Basalt and Snowmass Village, and the other towns have purchased theirs.
“We’re trying to keep his Carzilla mural here in Carbondale,” she said.
Anyone interested in contributing can go to the Carbondale Arts website and navigate to the GiveLively site. As of Sunday afternoon $1,092 of $3,500 had been raised.
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