He never thought he’d be thanking a bear for his career, but Brian Mazoff’s near brush with a hungry one led him to take up a bristle brush and start to paint some 10 years later.
A rainstorm had soaked his sleeping bag and left the then 14-year-old awake and crammed into an overcrowded tent.
“I heard something big coming and by the light of the full moon, its shadow fell across the tent. It was a bear and I froze,” says Mazoff, now 40. “It walked along the side of the tent and rolled me a little.”
The night visitor made off not only with most of the campers’ food supply, but also Mazoff’s sense of corporal security, triggering a debilitating disorder called dystonia, which produces neurologically induced spasms that, in Mazoff’s case, are constant and range throughout his body. He tenses up and his muscles seize in painful contractions. Since his diagnosis at the age of 32, the spasms have been mitigated by Botox injections and specialized exercises.
When it became impossible for him to enjoy the wilderness canoe guiding as he’d been doing into his 20s, a friend suggested he paint to occupy his summer hours.
“I started painting landscapes to get back outside. Art makes me think about my place in the universe and the magnificence of light, but it is also where I have a sense of control over my environment and where I am not controlled by my chronic pain,” he says.
Mazoff’s colours are more intense than nature, transmitting what he calls “struggle, confusion, anger and hope.” He often works at his parents’ Saint-Faustin-Lac-Carré, Que., country home, where he captures the outline of hills, the flow of water and the shift of sky, before transforming them to match his vision.
The artist also paints abstracts, fascinating explorations of imaginative alien worlds that could be taken from the realms of J.R.R. Tolkien or Avatar.
Mazoff works in oil, sometimes over acrylic and periodically mixed with epoxy to create a highly reflective surface like an enamel tile.
“Unable to draw a straight line because of my spasticity, I employ a messy movement to my brushwork, so if there ever is a spasm, it just blends in,” he says.
His works have been showcased in three solo shows since 2016 – at the Montreal Art Centre, the Métèque Gallery and an art space on Park Avenue.
Two of his works are at Coach House Antiques in Westmount, including an abstract called Liminality. “It’s a term derived from anthropology, referring to the state of being between one phase of life and another,” says Mazoff, who has a degree in the field.
His own liminality was between affliction and creative liberation.
“I have no training. The closest I came to it is studying cabinetmaking at Rosemount Technology Centre a few years after I got my bachelor’s degree. It became clear to me pretty quickly that I was far more drawn to the artistic aspects of it and liked making ornate pieces with veneers,” he says.
“I wasn’t cut out for doing kitchen cabinets. Now I’m looking for a selling job in that industry, since I can work with designers and read plans. I need the stability of a full-time income to allow me to continue to grow into making art.”
In his apartment cum studio, he is surrounded by his landscapes and an electronic drum kit with a microphone on a hinged arm that he crafted from a tree branch. A portrait of the bear hangs in the bathroom.
He’s hoping to start giving lectures on how art alleviates suffering. “I’m looking for ways to help others with chronic pain,” he says.
Some of Brian Mazoff’s work can be seen on his website at shmuworks.weebly.com.