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Spring 2009 | Finding the balance

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Chris Ayers
Chris Ayers ’97
Animal spirits

An aardvark a day keeps the doctor away

Concept artist Chris Ayers ’97 believes nurturing one’s creativity should be an essential part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle; part of the daily routine, just like brushing one’s teeth. His new book is itself the record of a journey from sickness to health.

He hopes “The Daily Zoo” (2008) will inspire people to explore their own creativity, whatever form that may take, “whether drawing, painting, singing, acting, cooking, gardening, mathematical problem-solving or scientific exploration – even for those who don’t see themselves as artists in the traditional sense of the word.”

Ayers, whose work has contributed to movies like “Star Trek II,” “The Incredible Hulk” and “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem,” specializes in character design. “Basically, what that means is that I give visual form or further develop a character that exists only as words in a script, thoughts in a director’s head, or as preliminary rough sketches,” he says.

“I try to work with art directors, production designers, makeup and creature effects artists, and animators to make a character appealing, frightening, heroic, villainous, or whatever the story calls for.”

Original work by Ayers was shown in the Baer Gallery on campus as part of the “Animal Art” exhibition featured in the September 2008 issue of @St. Norbert. This excerpt from his book is reproduced here by kind permission of Chris Ayers and Design Studio Press.

The doctor returned to the exam room and shut the door behind him. He had just viewed slides of my blood and said, “Well, as you probably know we’ve got a serious problem.” It was April 1, 2005, and I was about to be told that I had acute myelogenous leukemia, a cancer of the blood. April Fool’s Day. Cancer. Are you kidding? At this point in my life I was working as a character design artist in the entertainment industry and was under the impression that the sore throat and extreme fatigue I had been experiencing for the past few weeks were a result of a bacterial infection or something else rather benign.
View a gallery of images from Chris Ayers’ book “The Daily Zoo.” >>MORE

Six hours later I was sporting a powder blue hospital gown, looking away as a nurse threaded an IV into my left arm, only half-aware of what was happening. The other half of my consciousness was numb, reeling from this uncomfortable and terrifying label that had been suddenly thrust upon me: “cancer patient.” As I lay in the hospital bed that night – feverish, frightened, holding my fiancée’s hand, listening to the slow, rhythmic pulse of the IV pump – I was embarking on a journey, one that would be the toughest I had ever undertaken. Ultimately, though, it would also be one of the most rewarding and empowering journeys I had ever experienced. I had no clue that exactly one year later I would be embarking on yet another journey, tough and rewarding in its own way. This second journey, however, would be a celebration of completing the first.

My initial hospital stay, which included a first round of chemotherapy, losing my hair, fevers, chills, vomiting, lots and lots of needles, all sorts of tests, two bone marrow biopsies, a lumbar tap, dietary restrictions, and many sleepless nights, lasted just over one month. I had never been continuously indoors for such a long period of time and my eyes welled up with tears when I was finally able to go home and once again feel the breeze upon my face. The rest of my summer was spent in and out of the hospital, undergoing more rounds of high-dose chemo, total body radiation, more biopsies, tests, surgeries, and procedures. My last major treatment, which the nursing staff dubbed my “new birthday,” was an autologous stem cell transplant in July, 2005. This was hopefully going to give me my best shot at saying “C-ya” to the Big C. Throughout my treatment there were also innumerable phone calls, cards, emails, care packages, visits – a vast army of love and support, some expected and some surprising.

But this book is not meant to be a blow-by-blow account of my cancer journey – that is a story for another time. This book is about what I chose to do after experiencing cancer. By the spring of 2006, after a lengthy recovery period, I was feeling stronger physically and experiencing more energy. My visits to the doctor were less and less frequent and my treatments were reduced to fairly routine follow-up procedures. All signs were looking positive that I was in remission, and I was eager to move forward, though mindful not to forget what I had just gone through and that a relapse was a real possibility. I was energized to make my own, personal art more of a priority in my life. By mid-March 2006, I knew what I wanted to do.

On the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis, April 1, 2006, I started a sketchbook called The Daily Zoo. My intent was to draw an animal each day for a year. This would combine two of my lifelong loves: drawing and animals. I looked forward to challenging both my creativity and self-discipline. But most importantly it would provide an opportunity to celebrate the gift of each healthy day. Each animal would represent in a small but very tangible way another successful day in my personal fight against cancer.

So, at some point on each of the following 365 days, I spent a little time with my pals (pencils, pens, brushes; lions, tigers, and binturongs) and slowly filled the pages of The Daily Zoo. As my recovery continued and I became more active,the sketches were done not just at my drawing table at home, but in a wide variety of locations: airports, coffee shops, food courts, hotels, cars (as a passenger not a driver!) and, of course, the waiting room at the doctor’s office.

Why animals? Because from early childhood they have fascinated me. During my first trip to the zoo a pacifier was lost to the sea lions as I gasped in amazement. One of my first words was “undunt” – my best attempt at “elephant” – and my preschool teacher once reported to my parents that I had taught her that a dromedary camel has only one hump, not two. I have never outgrown that love. The immense diversity of the animal kingdom has provided an endless source of fascination and inspiration. Big. Small. Slimy. Scaly. Furry. Feathered. Spiky. Smooth. Wet. Dry. Fierce. Fanged. Cute. Cuddly. Fast. Slow. Endless. And when I learned early on to combine animals with another budding passion of mine, drawing, well ... that was it. I knew that somehow, somewhere, animals and art were destined to factor into my life. My current work as a character designer is a perfect fit.

Life is very complicated but in some ways, deep at its core, also very simple. Life is Short. Life is Precious. Do what you love and love what you do. But, as simple as it is, it is difficult to adhere to that simplicity. Life gets busy. Crazy. Messy. I’m certainly not immune to this – my life gets hectic too – but one of the positive outcomes of my cancer experience is understanding, even more than I did previously, the importance of striving to keep it simple. Find – make! – time in your life to do what you love and feed your soul.

Because The Daily Zoo was such a rewarding experience, I’ve continued the project beyond its inaugural year. At the time of this writing, I am nearing the end of Volume Two and blank sketchbooks sit on my shelf, awaiting the start of Volume Three. I can’t predict how long I will continue, but as long as it remains fun and challenging and I remain in good health, I may find it difficult to stop. Keeping the possibilities of your own creativity in mind, I invite you to turn the pages and wander the grounds of The Daily Zoo. Enjoy the journey. I know I did. 

You can hear Chris Ayers on the journey that led to The Daily Zoo in this recent interview on Minnesota Public Radio. A portion of the proceeds from “The Daily Zoo” currently supports cancer research through The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Spring 2009 magazine

Web extras Web exclusives
Look here for web-only content that expands on topics presented in the current St. Norbert College Magazine (PDF).

Video Student research
goes Galapagos

Reporting from one of the world’s best natural laboratories.

Audio Accessible and affordable
An interview to share with anyone considering a college education.

Text Extra Sports and their fans
An excerpt from a new book on the history, economics and culture of the relationship between spectator and sport.

Photo Gallery An aardvark a day
In this gallery of images, animal spirits prevail.

Text Extra Journalist in disguise
A look at two books authored by President Tom Kunkel.

Video Stepping out of the picture
An artist reflects on his recent work.

Story ideas? Your ideas for future magazine stories are most welcome. Write to the editor with any suggestions or comments.

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