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Gallery show is dying wish for artist

The work of Laura Church, who is in hospice care, will be featured in a solo exhibition at Gallery 1051.

Laura Church took up art after her life had fallen apart.

It has been a source of expression, comfort, challenge and purpose in the 11 years since. And it will also be her legacy.

Church is in hospice care at Emmanuel House on Stinson Street. The bone cancer in her skull has begun to grow again and treatment options have run out.

Her art teacher and friend April Mansilla has organized a gallery show that will showcase Church’s extensive work.

She filled art journals, each page front and page telling its own story. There are more than 60 thick journals jammed with paintings, sketches, collages.

“At first, it was all screaming because that’s all I had to say,” Church says from her hospital bed in a sunny room.

“Some of it is ugly but that’s what I was feeling.”

Laura Church with her family. PHOTO: Courtesy of Emily Hamelink

Church started to take on canvases when she met Mansilla, a professional artist and mental health advocate. Creating art at first was about expressing pain and loneliness for Church but with Mansilla’s guidance, it became a positive mental health practice.

A 2013 art journal entry features a person, drawn in markers, standing in a pile of rubble. Handwriting below the image reads: "Seven word autobiography" and beside it: "Life shared, ripped apart, now to rebuild."

A watercolour from 2022 includes the words: “I make art to show my soul that I am listening.”

Church has exhibited in group shows, including Art in the Workplace and St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton and her first entry in the Dundas Valley School of Art auction was not only accepted but it sold, too.

But it was always Church’s dream to have her work in a solo show. She sees it as a way for her three-year-old grandson Matteus to remember her proudly.

“Having an art show, it validates my art and I’m still so new that I feel like I need to validate it, that’s it real art.”

Church, who is mother to an adult daughter and son, was born and raised on the east Mountain. She met her ex-husband in high school at 15. When she was still only engaged at 25 and the couple were moving into their own house in Rosedale with their baby girl, Church went out and bought wedding rings.

She learned she had cancer just after her 40th birthday in 2011. She had surgery and radiation – her lifetime dose, in fact. She lost some hearing and sight – she’s now legally blind – and had to rebuild her speech and balance.

It wasn’t long before her husband left her. It meant selling their house and Church found herself homeless and living in a women’s shelter for a couple of months. She then settled into an apartment on the east Mountain and began creating art and rebuilding her life.

Her cancer stalled and didn’t advance – doctors termed it “cold.” But in October, an MRI showed it was growing again. It has advanced into the base of her brain and the top of her spine.

In February, Church learned her case is palliative. She went to live with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson but when her care proved too difficult, she was admitted to Hamilton General Hospital. She had been in hospice for a couple of weeks when we met.

“This is my final fight.”

Laura Church in her room at Emmanuel House. PHOTO: April Mansilla

Church was the mom who went to pick up other moms’ sick kids at school and baked every week for her ex-husband’s workplace. She’s an active member of Mount Hamilton Baptist Church and themes of faith often show up in her work.

“She always says her art is never done,” says her daughter Emily Hamelink.

“I reserve the right to alter my work,” Church echoes with a chuckle.

She dreamed of an art show called “Open Book” where all of her art journals would be on display.  

That dream will come true at Gallery 1051 at 1051 Upper James St., where “Open Book” will run from May 4 to Aug. 4.

“I can’t even imagine that it’s going to be real. I never imagined it would get to this point,” she says of her art.

“Art has given me a reason to get up,” says Church, who has coped with major depression and anxiety throughout her life.

Laura Church with her grandson Matteus. PHOTO: Courtesy Emily Hamelink

A physiotherapist is on his way to teach Church how to get in and out of a wheelchair and in and out of a car so that she can go to her art show’s opening reception.

Hamelink says there is a sense of pride in her mother’s work being shown.

“Everyone gets together to celebrate someone’s life at their funeral but this will be a party with everyone she loves before she passes. There will be sadness but celebration too.”

Church’s art should have been exhibited long before now, says Mansilla.

“She never gives herself credit for how good she is. She’s a very intuitive artist but she always appreciates the art of others, not her own,” says Mansilla.

“She is a remarkable person and a remarkable artist and her kindness is unbelievable.”

She has tattoos on her arms that she’s designed herself: A colourful skull with a yellow ribbon for bone cancer, the birth dates of her children and grandchild in script and a single purple flower. It is the birth flower of her grandson and she hoped one day there would be a bouquet.

A self-portrait from 2020 includes words that have taken on new meaning now.

“You can’t go back and change the beginning but you can start where you are and change the ending.”