In 2018 Burnette Gilles was told she had three to five years to live.
The Maple Ridge resident was told she had interstitial lung disease, an umbrella term for a large group of diseases according to the American Lung Association, that cause scarring of the lungs making it difficult to breathe or get oxygen to the bloodstream. The damage done to a person’s lungs with this condition is usually irreversible and only gets worse over time.
However, as scary as the future sounded for Gilles, she thought she was not going to let it get her down. Instead, she picked up her first brush and taught herself how to paint.
Now the 62-year-old is an active member of the Federation of Canadian Artists, the country’s largest member-driven visual arts service organization – and her condition is stable, thanks to medication and Gilles believes, her positive outlook on life.
Gilles was terrified when she first became sick in 2017.
“That was the scariest thing for me, how everything was changing. That I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs. That I couldn’t breathe when I went outside. That I had to carry the oxygen and all that,” said Gilles.
At first her doctor thought it might be pneumonia, but when antibiotics didn’t work she was sent to a lung specialist who sent her for a cat scan, and confirmed her condition in April 2018.
“It was so scary to hear those words,” she said through tears about how long she was told she had left to live.
But soon she came to the realization that her condition was not that bad. I’m still here, she said to herself, just because I have to wear oxygen when I am walking, it not the worst thing in the world.
And, when she started painting, it freed her mind of all her negative thoughts – allowing her to focus on her family, friends, and enjoying life.
Gilles paints using acrylics. However, she admits, the choice was made due to the ease of cleaning up after a painting session, rather than any increase in satisfaction in the outcome of her paintings.
It is the transformation of each project as she works on them that brings her the greatest joy.
“When you’re painting, you’re focusing on a little area and you have to be in the zone,” explained Gilles. “You have to physically get away from the painting, walk around the room and go back to the painting to see exactly what you did.”
Animals are Gilles’ subject of choice. Her life-like paintings resemble photographs rather than paint on canvas – especially those done in black and white. However, Gilles also enjoys painting in modern abstract.
“I love the colours, the brightness and everything,” she noted.
Gilles was juried into the Federation of Canadian Artists on June 12, 2021, after submitting 10 photographs of her artwork. Only artists who are juried in can join the ranks of the 2,700 other artists nationwide. Now every time she submits a painting for the gallery in Granville Market, downtown Vancouver, it is juried by three of her peers.
“I feel very grateful that I got in,” said the artist, humbly.
Gilles no longer has to wear oxygen when she walks – a change that has baffled her doctors. Her disease is stable now. The medications she is on are keeping it at bay, she explained. Although, she is still in contact with the transplant team, a reality she will have to face some time in the future.
For now, though, instead of seeing doctors every month, she only sees them once every six months.
“I’m feeling great, I really am,” she said.
“The girl that I used to be is not there anymore. It’s a whole different life for me.”
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