Reprinted with permission - The Era Banner

Artist draws on illness

Mar 29, 2005
Patrick Mangion


Heather Kertzer

Art has long remained the most subjective of domains. The emotion a piece evokes can often be as profound as the inspiration that shapes it.

In local artist Heather Kertzer's case, that often happens to be Sandy, the family dog, and Comet, the cat of the house.

While the 49-year-old married mother of one teenage daughter got her start in cartography, she later progressed to natural landscapes. And she has since carved out a successful niche applying caring strokes to the canvass for those wanting to immortalize their pet.

"I started doing landscapes first. It's very competitive though. It made it very hard to sell your paintings," she said. "I was doing (pet portraits) for friends and they just loved them. So then I took a business course." Her three-year-old business, operated out of the basement of her north Newmarket home, has been steadily gaining momentum.

Last fall, she was inundated with online requests from customers across Canada and the United States who wanted a painting in time for the holidays.

Slowed only by the lingering effects of multiple sclerosis, at times a disabling disease of the central nervous system -- brain and spinal cord, Ms Kertzer's art has remained a place of refuge since being diagnosed 13 years ago.

There is no cure and women are twice as likely to develop MS as men. MS can cause loss of balance, impaired speech, extreme fatigue, double vision and paralysis.

"I've had two bad flare-ups in 13 years," she said. "I went on a hiking and canoe trip with some girlfriends. When I came back, I felt paralysed." She was admitted to a Toronto hospital and remained for several days.

"They told me it was either MS or I had a brain tumour. After (the doctors) made the diagnosis, they came back to me and said, 'You're lucky, it's MS.'"

"I was quite sick for a lot of years. I needed a wheelchair or a scooter. I couldn't walk far. I was in really bad shape," she said. That debilitating state made it impossible for her to continue as a freelance cartographer, working in remote camps in Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories, where she drew maps for a geology company.

About the same time she was diagnosed with MS, in 1992, cartography was beginning to be pushed out as an art form, in favour of computer mapping.

"Growing up, the game plan was always to be an artist. Making maps was a beautiful art. Now, it's a dead art," said Ms Kertzer, a graduate of the University of Waterloo's fine arts and geography programs. It was there she met her husband, Paul, and today, the couple's 19-year-old daughter, Samantha, is completing a computer science degree at Waterloo.

Although short-lived, cartography was a dream job that offered adventure to the country's most solitary regions. Camps were set up to make team members comfortable, or as comfortable as life can be, deep in the Canadian wilderness.

"I remember there was a mail strike. (Paul and I) had to talk over the short-wave radio. Everybody could hear your conversation and you could hear everybody else. It became our entertainment," she said, a smiling.

Today, she attributes her artistic acumen, in part, to the emergence of technology in the cartography field and MS, a disease for which she has become a committed advocate in the search for a cure.

"MS was the vehicle. It's a double-edged sword. But it gave me the opportunity to be an artist. Otherwise, I'd still be a cartographer," she said, sitting among several of her works in her basement studio.

Outlook by Heather Kertzer

Along with affable portraits of man's best friend, her portfolio boasts effervescent landscapes highlighting the simple tranquility of a summer sunset or an inviting pair of Muskoka chairs overlooking a clear blue lake.

"The reason I paint any picture is to share my feelings about life itself. When I paint, I tell the viewer what I like, what I believe and what I'm concerned about," she said.

She has participated in a variety of juried and non-juried shows, including The Toronto Outdoor Exhibition, The Newmarket Intercultural Exhibit, The Stephen Leacock Gallery, The Link Art Gallery, Art Aurora, The Society of York Region Artists shows, The Markham Art Show, The Manse Gallery in Muskoka as well as solo shows at the Markham Theatre.

She has received show ribbons for her pen and inks. Her paintings hang in many private collections including The Bowman Collection at the Newmarket Library.

Ms Kertzer will also be taking part in the MS Society of Canada's Super Cities walk in Newmarket April 17.