A NYC Artist Conquering Cancer

January 16th, 2014 by Nell Alk

Jeffrey Shagawat is committed to making the most of every moment.

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It’s not every day you encounter someone who’s suffered the injustice of having been diagnosed with brain cancer. Still more rare is witnessing said individual flip predictions, determined to not only beat the disease, but also live life as a person and not a patient.

Enter Jeffery Shagawat, a 39-year-old Manhattan artist who, in 2010, came face-to-face with the most traumatic news he’d ever received. And yet, upon meeting him, one would never surmise Shagawat had come up against something so severely serious. Indeed, the New Jersey born and bred photographer laughs a lot. Or, perhaps more accurately, makes everyone else laugh a lot. You’d never peg Shagawat for a survivor of our nation’s second leading cause of death. But that’s exactly what he is.

Shagawat has always been acutely aware that the surgeons, doctors, therapists and nurses—however critical their role in his recovery—can carry him only so far; it’s his decision to succumb or surmount, to live complacently or consciously. And, armed with this knowledge, Shagawat has since the outset of this ordeal been creating, collecting and conceiving. In other words, the artist has been doing what he does best: generating art. And, in turn, simply living. Documenting his journey from the gurney, recording others’ responses and capturing impressive self-portraits—stapled skull and all—Shagawat’s craft has not just endured, it has evolved.

He dubs this post-diagnosis body of work—which in addition to photos and videos also includes collages made from medical paperwork and figures sculpted out of prescription bottles—NEW BRAIN, and his mission is to exhibit it under this title, too.

I recently sat across from Shagawat at his kitchen table, listening intently as he opened up about this challenging chapter in his life. From seizures to memory loss, from a semi-paralyzed-permanently-cramped hand (“everything is a claw grab”) to slowed speech (“I used to be like a whip”), from math mistakes (“which I don’t really care about”) to headaches, this son, brother and husband has weathered, and continues to weather, a most unusual storm.

In spite of this, or maybe because of this, Shagawat has seemingly shed some of his self-reported former cynicism. (He does still claim to be a “curmudgeon,” however.) Case in point: though he’s been residing in New York for 20 years, Shagawat even now marvels at the city’s skyline. Remarking on the view of the Empire State Building from his apartment in Tribeca, he smiles, “Kinda cool, huh?” 

Let’s start at the beginning. What was the first clue indicating there might be a problem? 

I was having seizures and had no idea why. The last thing you would think is that you’re sick. Even after a couple more I was still hesitant to get checked out by a doctor. My wife and I were totally in denial.

What was your reaction when you found out it was a brain tumor?

Cancer became this huge part of my life. That was eye opening, to see how much it exists. I never really thought about it. I always looked at cancer as an “old people” disease. Now I realize age has nothing to do with it.

What’s one side effect to dealing with this disease that strikes you as most troublesome?

Being on drugs is awful. Painkillers, they had me on nine a day for a while. I’m on a million meds for seizures. I’m in public, guzzling all these pills. People probably think I’m some junkie.

Has your diagnosis changed your day-to-day behavior at all?

Yes, I’m more aware. I’m aware of what I’m taking into my body, even if it’s bad.

How else would you say you’ve changed?

I didn’t change much. That’s kind of how I got over a lot of things. I hung out with my friends. We danced. We partied. I mean, I didn’t go crazy, but we had a lot of fun. Everybody stuck together. Thank god I had a great support system. I think that’s the thing that saved me in a way. My friends were so fun through the whole thing. Comic relief.

Sounds like you were surrounded. I imagine you also spent a lot of time on your own.

I spent a lot of time by myself. I would take walks, taking photos to keep my mind off things. It was so much easier than wallowing in depression. I don’t want to be a bummer. I don’t want to complain. This is my deal. I can’t ruin everyone’s day.

It’s a state of mind. You have to know that you’re going to make it. That’s the goal. You have to celebrate life. That’s what you gotta do. There was no way for one second that I thought I was going to die.

Most people wouldn’t be so self-assured. That’s a commendable mindset.

I do not wish it upon anyone, but now it’s a part of me. It made me stronger. There’s a reason for everything. People ask me why I think this happened. I tell them, It’s science. It’s just science. Cancer could strike anyone. If it’s not a brain tumor, it’s something else. Everyone has a story.

Sounds like you’re no longer in denial. You roll with the punches, so-to-speak. Surely something must have been hard, though.

This sounds so cheesy and cliché, but I think I felt worse for everyone else. When I got sick, my dad didn’t leave my couch for almost three weeks. He came back from the hospital with me and he stayed there. I was like, Dad, you gotta go back to work. I felt bad for him. I remember two weeks after my surgery, it was Thanksgiving, but it felt more like Jeffsgiving. Everyone was tiptoeing around me. I made them feel better, that I was taking this so lightly. I wasn’t feeling bad for myself.

Some might dwell. Sounds like you did anything but.

Your purpose shouldn’t be worrying about whether you might die. My dad always says, Worrying is an unnecessary use of imagination. Which is brilliant. You gotta stay positive. Stick with what you know, surround yourself with good people. There are really, really good people out there. When something like this happens, you realize how good people are. Something I never thought about before.

I also understand you hang onto all your statements, among other things…

Yes, I saved everything. I have hundreds and hundreds of pill containers. I’m building a chandelier! If you saw how many Duane Reade bags they give you the medicine in, it’s unbelievable how much medicine I’ve been on, or that I still take. How much paperwork I have is completely insane. It just keeps coming. It started taking over our house. Most of it is at my parents’ now, stashed in a closet.

Then there’s the artistic motivation for holding on to everything.

It occurred to me, I gotta do something with this! An art show. It's all going to be part of NEW BRAIN.

An entire wall covered with papers, crumpled up and stapled together, protruding out of the wall, then sprayed with some kind of gloss or adhesive, so it stays that way. The hard part is trying to present it in a positive way. I don’t want the gallery show to be depressing. I want it to be a celebration of life.

For sure. I wouldn’t expect anything less.

And, once this is all done, we’re setting the whole thing on fire. We’re having a big party. That’s going to be the greatest thing. The coolest thing that I think is going to come out of this is a documentary featuring some of the footage I took throughout that year. With a friend’s help, I'll edit all 23 hours into a cohesive story. Hopefully it will be accepted at a few festivals.

Any highlights?

For the surgery, they shaved half my head. Usually people shave their entire head, to look normal, but I kept my hair hanging off my head on one side. [Laughs] I looked insane. I thought it was hysterical. I would walk down Canal Street with my hat off looking crazy and just videotape people’s reactions. Like anything else, you have to have fun with whatever it is. I had fun with my situation. I really did.

So, what comes next? I know you’re still “in this,” but you’re certainly on the upswing.

I just want to make art and enjoy life. Maybe I can inspire somebody along the way.

Nell Alk’s writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Essential Homme Magazine and Z!NK Magazine, and on RollingStone.com, InterviewMagazine.com and BlackBookMag.com, among other print and online publications. She lives in New York City.