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When life gave David Welch a lemon-shaped brain tumor, he gave wood engraver Rosemary Feit Covey an inspiration for her latest project.
Welch, 40, recalls growing up with Feit Covey’s work in his childhood home. “I felt like I’d known her for years,” he says. Though the two, both Alexandria residents, later became casual friends through his mother, Welch had never felt compelled to buy any of the 52-year-old Feit Covey’s work for himself until April 2004. During a visit to her studio in Old Town Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center, Welch came across Feit Covey’s print Bird Boy, which depicts a young boy with a crow perched on the left side of his skull. Welch says the work struck him as a “wake-up call about the reality of death.”
A year, almost to the day, after purchasing the print, Welch was on his way to New York for brain surgery, having been diagnosed with brain cancer. The tumor—which he has extensively documented on his blog, 38lemon.com—was “exactly where the crow sits in the picture,” he says.
Convinced of a connection between the print and his tumor, Welch contacted Feit Covey after his surgery to discuss a potential collaboration. Welch was looking for someone to create an artistic account of his cancer-related experiences, and he was willing to bankroll the project. Outside of that, he had no specific guidelines—which, according to Welch, suited Feit Covey just fine.
To familiarize herself with her subject, Feit Covey began accompanying Welch and his divorced parents during their visits to various doctors’ offices. Two months after Welch’s surgery, an MRI taken at the National Institutes of Health revealed the tumor’s continued aggressive growth; a later trip to New York University was more promising but did little to relieve the rising tension created by Feit Covey’s constant presence. Though he found her company therapeutic, Welch says, his distraught parents did not.
“The last thing they wanted to do was deal with an artist there asking questions, taking pictures, writing notes, taking my time,” Welch says. His father, Jim Welch, a 63-year-old retired Army general, confirms his son’s assessment. “She’s a very nice lady…[but] her work is a little dark for me,” he says. “And the situation was dark enough.”
In August of this year, Welch and his family finally received some good news: A second MRI taken at NIH revealed the tumor growth had slowed. Welch’s parents were ecstatic. Her personal elation aside, however, Feit Covey couldn’t help but see the positive development as an artistic setback.
“My first thought was, There goes the project,” she says. “We were planning to chronicle a decline, not a man going back to work.”
Feit Covey has since worked through the artistic crisis, with her leveling humor intact. On Saturday, Oct. 14, she will hold a lemon-themed “brain tumor party” at Torpedo Factory to celebrate the opening of “Brain Tumor,” an exhibition of her completed works on Welch. “I got the idea from a friend who found a mold for Jell-O that kind of looks like a brain,” Feit Covey says. Featured hors d’oeuvres will include Lemonheads and brain-shaped gummy candies; the Bittersweet Cafe in Old Town is donating lemonade and other refreshments. “David’s all into this being a thing for brain-cancer awareness,” Feit Covey says. “I’m thinking oddball party.”
Among the 20 to 25 pieces to be displayed in her studio, David With Astrocytes is one of both Welch’s and Feit Covey’s favorites. The print shows Welch’s face—handsome, with full lips and a frank gaze—underneath a tissuey layer of delicate pink astrocytes. Also included in the show are prints that examine the more technical aspects of Welch’s brain-tumor experience, as well as a book composed of segments from his private journals—which detail his chemotherapy treatments, doctor appointments, and health-insurance worries.
James Giordano, scholar in residence at Georgetown University Medical Center’s Center for Clinical Bioethics, plans to attend the reception. Giordano says he is interested in working with Feit Covey on a brain-related project in the spring. “Our minds are our own, but our brains involve gooey stuff that we don’t fully understand,” Giordano says. “Rosemary’s wood engravings depict the philosophical and ethical emotionality that [this contradiction] raises.”
That isn’t the only contradiction raised by Feit Covey’s works. Though she concedes that the ominous image in Bird Boy led Welch to her, the artist remains unconvinced of the print’s prophetic status.
“The images I carve on the wood blocks are reversed in the prints,” Feit Covey says. “So the crow was actually on the right side of the boy’s skull.”—Karen Sosnoski