Cancer and Creativity: Thedra Cullar-Ledford

Thedra Cullar-Ledford and her painting

Thedra’s got cancer and she’s putting it on canvas.

I met the artist Thedra Cullar-Ledford last summer in Houston, Texas during my 2013 book tour. We’ve stayed connected via Facebook. And then about a month ago, I began seeing her posts about her breasts and cancer. What came after that, for me, was extraordinary. She was painting. And she was sharing her work. This is her story of her creativity and breast cancer.

K: How would you describe what you do, Thedra?

T: I’m a professional artist. I was a college art teacher for 12 years and now I just focus on my own art. I let everything in my life become part of my art whether it wants to or not. It’s just where I get my inspiration.

I just found out I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cheap therapy is to put it all in paint. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

K: Tell me about your paintings.

T: Well, they’re very large and very violent and have a lot of obscenities toward cancer, which is exactly how I’m feeling right now. I’m very dyslexic so I don’t spell well, but basically it’s, “FU Cancer.” It’s really fun to swing the paint around and get up there and get mad and rip it and be everything that I’m not. Be immature. Be a badass. It’s definitely cathartic. And it’s helping.

K: When did you first know you were an artist?

T: I’ve always been an artist, since I was two years old. I was raised by parents who were both artists. I’m not sure I ever really wanted to be an artist; it just was the inevitability of how I got my love and attention. There was never another option. Basically if you can’t spell or do math or function in normal society, other parts of your brain grow really healthy. To me, being an artist is easer than anything else in my life.

K: So it seems natural that when you got this diagnosis that’s where you would go. For other women who might not have such a comfort level with their self-expression, tell me. What are you up to there?

T: I spent five weeks stuffing myself with sugar cookies and laying in my bed. And after a while you realize that you can’t Netflix yourself to death. You have to get up. I needed a really physical outlet. I went to my studio, which is my favorite room in the house. I looked at my walking machine and I looked at all my rolls of paper and charcoals… “Fuck exercising; I’ll just make art.” Everyone can find something that they can do to keep themselves busy besides just thinking about what’s going on in their own body. It’s easier to just do something productive.

I’ve also really thrown myself into my other really fabulous hobby, which is matchmaking. I’m pretty good at putting people together. I really don’t care for the whole bullshit art world; but I have to go to a lot of openings, so it’s a perfect place to say, “Meet me there, wear that short skirt and I’ll find you a rich man.” I love to match people up. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I’m my most creative when I’m collecting people.

Mark making and putting paint on a canvas are just easy peasy to me – there’s no challenge or effort there at all. My challenges in life tend to be 12-story parking garages, and saying the right thing, and not putting too much chocolate in my mouth. I’m more panicked about having to go do the stupid parking garage than I am about having them tell me one tit’s gotta come off or two tits or…. But what’s easy for me is being in the studio.

K: For me, creativity is the flow of life itself. So what would you say is the relationship between creativity and life? What’s your experience of that that force that moves through you when you’re creating?

T: It’s always seemed like the safe place to fall or the comfort zone was when I was making art. I was very dyslexic, so anytime I was in a school situation as a little kid I would have panic attacks. And I had this one great teacher – actually I had a hundred great teachers – but he would let me go make sock puppets in the back of the room. And that was just really what I needed in 3rd grade. Creativity was my anchor and my savior. It was the thing that saved me.

I was a very good teacher because I was able to just encourage people to find their own creativity. And that’s what you need in art school – people who are the real deal.

K: When I met you in Houston, you were getting ready to teach a group of young people at your Art Summer Camp. What do you do to encourage people (in that case young people) to find their own creativity?

T: I try to get to know the person and see where they are. A lot of times you have to kind of unblock what’s been told to them before. And I try to get them to tell me what they want to make and then I help them utilize it. We fill water guns and water balloons with paint and go outside and try to get some of it on the canvas. We make things.

K: Not everyone ends up being an artist. But we’re talking about life here. How can people apply these principles to what they’re facing in their lives?

T: Everybody’s going to keep the memory of being able to make themselves feel better doing something creative. And if you learn it as a child and it’s your comfort zone rather than a bottle or food or shopping, you know it’s a good addiction.

K: So, let’s come back to where you are right now. For me the core of the creative process is taking whatever your circumstances are, whatever you’ve been dealt today and using your choice to respond to it in a deliberate and conscious way. That’s what I call living creatively. Have you seen that in your own life?

T: Oh, absolutely. We lived in NYC eight years ago, and I taught at the art institute there. You spend so much money and time working, and you don’t have any energy left to make art. We made a list of things we wanted to do. We wanted our land and our living to support us.

So we moved back to Houston and bought land and built studios for young artists out of shipping containers. We live what we talk about. There are six to seven artists on campus at all times – ceramicists, poets, photographers – and it’s the right way to live. I’ve got my chickens. I’ve got my Airstream. And I encourage other people. We’ve created our own environment of art and artists, and it’s pretty damn perfect. And when the sun shines, it’s really good. So I’m just staying positive.

I made a list of all the things my husband and I were really good at: we’re kind of nurturing type people, and we’re good at art, and we’re creative as shit. And we proceeded to use all our talents. They say, “If you do what you love, then you’re not really working.” And that’s true. I get up every day and do what I love. And it’s all pretty natural.

Most of the work I’ve done before was about women’s issues and my crazy life. Now it’s nice to be able to make art about something that’s on other people’s radar, that’s maybe going to help other people. One in eight women (I had no idea that the statistic was that high) get breast cancer. One in eight. It’s crazy. If my boobs… if what I would normally be doing can get out there and help other people that would be good. That makes me feel good. So I tell people, “Go have your tits squeezed by somebody professional, and then have someone you like squeeze ‘em.”

K: That’s a good philosophy!