Robert Pope (1956-1992) was a dedicated Nova Scotia artist who died of Hodgkin’s Disease, cancer of the lymphatic system, at the age of 36 after a ten year battle with the illness.
Following his graduation from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the early 1980s, Robert began his practice of social realist painting.
He is best known for a significant body of work exploring his experience of healthcare and healing as a cancer patient.
These paintings, which he produced for his large solo show at Dalhousie University Art Gallery in 1991 were later exhibited nationally and internationally at over 65 venues.
They also formed the compelling visual narrative for the 1991 book he wrote called Illness and Healing, Images of Cancer.
This book was an inspiration to the general public in Nova Scotia and beyond. It also became an important example of the cancer patients’ experience of illness for the medical profession and it is now a key text used in various Medical Schools in Canada and elsewhere.
Robert’s artwork is of particular interest to physicians engaged in medical humanities education. In this area of medical education, health concerns explored in the arts and humanities (literature, visual art, spirituality and the history of medicine) provide an important complementary understanding of the individual’s experience of illness and well-being for a medical profession ruled by biomedical science.
Robert’s book Illness and Healing, Images of Cancer provides a detailed narrative account and visual depiction of what it is like to become ill, undergo cancer treatment, adopt healthy living practices and embrace a positive outlook, even when the odds are against you. While Robert takes one on a journey into the heart of suffering, he delivers a life affirming story that touches the soul. As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross noted, Robert’s perspectives on illness, healing and celebrating life while confronting one’s mortality were “fabulous.”
Because Robert’s story continues to engender a heartfelt understanding of the experience of cancer and along with that an empathic response to individuals confronting this illness, he was posthumously honored with a Humanities Award from the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine in 2004.
While thin and frail during his most productive years as an artist, Robert approached his work with such a focus and passion that he was enabled to complete almost 100 works of art on the illness and healing theme.
Robert’s other significant painting series in his brief life featured 47 artworks for a show entitled A Seal Upon Thine Heart which exhibited at Halifax’s Saint Mary’s University Art Gallery in 1988. Biographical in nature, this show explored a tumultuous love relationship between a young man and woman reflecting Robert’s own personal life and those of his friends. The artwork was also inspired by Elizabeth Smart’s 1945 poetic prose masterpiece, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Both Robert Pope and Ottawa born, Elizabeth Smart transformed pain into art and beauty. Robert took the title for the show from Smart’s quotation from “The Song of Solomon”: “Set me a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm, for love is strong as death.”
Robert Pope, who grew up in Hantsport and later lived in Halifax, is fondly remembered by all who knew him as a loyal friend, an enthusiastic and determined artist and one who, though quiet in manner, was a leader through example.