A friend's journey from cancer and chronic pain to vibrant health; how he traded military life and alcohol for wheatgrass shots, smoothies, yoga and art.
I met Britton Tolliver in 2004, when he was a graduate student pursuing his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, MI. He currently lives and works in Los Angeles, CA, where he underwent a significant health crisis in 2011. Through a radical transformation of his diet and lifestyle over the last five years, Tolliver has beat the odds in a bid for vibrant health and a reinvigorated, prolific studio life. I recently had the opportunity to talk to him about his metamorphosis.
NATALIE WESTBROOK: You described your health battle to me before as a kind of "Beauty and the Beast story.” I'm curious to know how your narrative begins.
BRITTON TOLLIVER: I went into the military right after high school, the 82nd Airbourne Division in Fort Bragg, NC. Through that door entered a very enticing beast called machismo and alcohol. Trust me, the young children dying for your country are overtly aggro humans with a bottomless appetite for booze. Everyone is twenty-ish and crazy pumped from the physical endeavors to weird sheer responsibilities of being in a unit that is super duper combat ready. This is where my unrealistic idea of human limits of excess were first tested. In the military I was convicted of LSD consumption and marijuana consumption, meaning my service was halted, and I received a Bad Conduct Discharge and an 11 months and 29 days sentence in military prison. But, this is actually where I was first introduced to art, so this was not at all a bad thing. Actually, prison was a very eye opening experience, with quite a positive spin. Many years later, the year is 2011, I had been living in Los Angeles, CA since 2008, and I started to have a lot of "ghost" abdominal pains, and I went in for a full body CAT scan and I was diagnosed with Stage 1 renal cell carcinoma (kidney cancer). I was supposed to have a very basic laproscopic surgery, and keep most of the kidney, but the doctor botched it, so they had to take the whole kidney. I felt very betrayed, and very depressed. So instead of dealing with this life change in a responsible manner, I chose to deal with it the only way I knew how; more alcohol. Through this, I severely injured my back from the kidney surgery due to the fact that my core muscles had been severed and were not properly supporting my back. So, I was just developing a ton of chronic pain, and was not at all dealing with anything in my life in a positive manner. On July 31st, 2015, I quit drinking. I have not had a drink since. Honestly, I know I can never go back. I focus everything in the most positive manner I can now. I do tons of Bikram yoga, eat organic, drink tons of water, and just try to focus on the positive aspects of living, instead of the negative. So far, so good.
NW: You currently have a live/work space in LA in which the second floor of your home serves as your workspace. You seemed to have integrated your painting practice into your lifestyle currently. Was there a period when you weren’t healthy enough to make work?
BT: No, I have always been obsessive. After my surgery, I finished a diptych for a museum show in my hospital gown. I was on so many pain killers, but a deadline is a deadline. The real reason why I got into yoga was my back was killing me in the studio, and was severely getting in the way of making the work. I knew it was a make or brake situation, and I had to take it very seriously.
NW: What have been the most effective methods of transformation in your path to healing, and can you speak to how your studio practice in particular has been affected by the changes?
BT: The most effective method I had was meeting the most positive and beautiful human being that I have ever met. His name is Peter Michael. He is a body man, meaning a deep muscle tissue technique called Rolfing. He is 74 years old, and has the hands of a samurai. He has set my body free countless times, he is super special to me. I could talk about this guy for hours. His understanding of anatomy is so uncanny and graceful.
NW: What does your typical diet look like now, and how are you feeling?
BT: My diet consists of lots and lots of fruits and vegetables, tons of living energetic matter! I eat a lot of low fat protein. I try to energize my body, not bog it down! I drink tons of alkaline water always trying to balance out the acidity. Since I have not drank in a year, and all the positive things that I include in my life now, I have dropped 35 lbs. It feels great, turning 40, and feeling good about yourself really helps. Feeling good about yourself is very important, inside and out.
NW: Let’s talk shop. You’re a technical wiz in the studio, geeking out with various layering strategies and paint application tricks- from masking techniques to glazing, to wielding a palette knife and brush like a born pastry chef. What are your tools of the trade in the kitchen these days? Do you have a favorite blender or juicer etc.?
BT: Hmmmm, favorite tools....... Prob my Omega cold press juicer, it does wheatgrass shots to make your own peanut butter, it's insanely bulletproof, I will be using this till the day I die.
NW: I’d love to have an original Britton Tolliver recipe on file. Is there one you’d be willing to share?
BT: Dragonfruit, banana, blueberries, kale or spinach, almond milk, chia seeds, raw honey, cinnamon and turmeric. All the things needed for power, anti inflammatory and immunity boosters.
Britton Tolliver has recently exhibited in NO BAD DAYS with Shara Hughes at Left Field Gallery in San Luis Obispo, CA, and End of Semester at BBQLA in LA, both shows in 2016. Solo exhibitions include Durden and Ray, Kinkead Contemporary, and Anna Meliksetian Gallery in Los Angeles, CA; HilgerBROTKunsthalle, Vienna, Austria; Joshua Liner Gallery, New York, NY; and GOLDEN in Chicago, IL. Born in Kingsport, TN, Tolliver received his BFA from East Tennessee State University, and his MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art.
For more of Britton Tolliver’s work, visit brittontolliver.com
For my full interview with Britton Tolliver about his studio practice and vibrant paintings, check out Lookie-Lookie.