CLEVELAND, Ohio — Peter Rinaldi touched his right index finger to a small button on his throat, activating a voice box prosthesis, and spoke in a slightly froggy but pleasant tone:
“They’re kind of all my favorites,” he said as surveyed his work on prominent display at University Hospitals Case Medical Center. Doctors and nurses – some of them his caregivers as he receives treatment for cancer – hobnobbed at the first-ever opening for a patient/artist.
Even the hospital’s bigwig, CEO Tom Zenty, stopped down to take in the show and chat up the artist.
Each of the eclectic works spoke a different message to patrons, and each told a story. They were created during a time – after surgery for laryngeal cancer – when Rinaldi had no other voice.
Rinaldi, 78, worked as a General Motors machine technician much of his life in Warren, where he lives, but he always had an artistic side. “As far back as I can remember I liked to draw. I got scolded in school for drawing in class when I wasn’t supposed to be drawing. I was always doodling,” he said.
He draws and paints and sculpts and carves. He makes fine furniture and stunning stained glass. He’s known for his whimsical work with golf balls – goofballs, people call them – where he cleanly removes half the white cover and then carves an interesting design or a name or a face into the rubber core.
But until his cancer, he didn’t know what a comfort art could be, and what a voice it could give him.
“It kind of made my pain subside,” he said. “When you got the blues, it’d go away.”
A nurse at UH’s Seidman Cancer Center first noticed Rinaldi drawing on a “Boogie Board,” an inexpensive paperless memo pad he used for communicating. He drew a portrait of Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital, which he could see out his window. She alerted the art therapy department.
In came art therapist Stephen Macek, who had a cart filled with all kinds of media and supplies. Rinaldi had always enjoyed realistic depictions in his work, with colored pencil or oil paint. Macek got him to branch out into abstract works which, especially when chemo took a hard grip, was more soothing.
“It was a relief,” said Rinaldi. “I could express myself, but I didn’t have to do something somebody could recognize.”
“He is a man who is willing to take risks and adapt and that translates to his treatment as well,” said Macek. “And the importance of the art here was having people learn about who he is. It goes beyond just him being a patient. He is a human being with a story to share and not just someone with cancer who is being treated.”
He spent 18 days in the hospital, his in-bed art projects making the recovery more tolerable.
“Imagine waking up and you are not able to talk and you breath through a hole in your throat,” said Rinaldi’s wife, Kathy, who gets choked up when she talks about how much his engagement in art during the toughest times of his illness helped pull him through. “It was a godsend for him.”
Rinaldi was discharged in December 2013. In the meantime, he worked on art projects in his art room and workshop at home. He learned a few months back that the cancer had spread to his lungs, and so he continues a two weeks on, one week off, regimen of chemotherapy on Thursdays. And he continues to work on new pieces, taking a break to organize the UH exhibition.
He was pleased to see some of his paintings already have red dots on their name cards. That means they’ve been bought.
Tom Huck, UH’s art curator, said he’d heard about Rinaldi’s works and thought it might be nice to display a piece or two in the hospital. Then he met the man and saw his collection.
“I saw the variety, realism to abstract, and just said, ‘This really warrants an exhibition,'” said Huck. “It was really powerful. And when I talked to him in infusion (where he was getting chemotherapy) about his art, he just sat up and got full of energy and it was like, this is why we’re here.”
The art therapists at UH are excited about Rinaldi’s talent, the role art is playing in his treatment and in his success. But they are quick to caution that most patients don’t possess his innate talents. Which is just fine.
“People think you have to have ability to do art therapy, but it is often the opposite,” said art therapist Barbara DiScenna.
UH has a new studio in the Seidman Cancer Center for patients to use to create and it is offering workshops for the broader community through a grant from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture.
On the wall in UH’s Lerner Tower until Feb. 20, Rinaldi’s art is a testament to the strength of the patient, to his own strength. His letter hangs on the wall preceding the exhibition. His words carry as much powers as the acrylics on canvas.
“(Art) gives me not only inner strength, but physical motivation to persevere beyond my body’s weaknesses due to illness and side effects from treatment. … When I am making art, I become very focused on what’s in front of me. Concerns and issues I have seem to drop into the background. … (Art) picks my brain for better thoughts and allows me to tuck the pain away.”