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The Poet Spiel on life, love and dementia

Dying of the light

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GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell

Tom Taylor, 77, known also as Thoss W. Taylor or the Poet Spiel in his capacity as an artist, suffers from vascular dementia. The progressive and incurable disease will kill him, if something else doesn't do it first.

It goes like this: Over time, blood stops making its way to parts of his brain, killing cells and, by doing so, damaging his capacity for reasoning, planning, judgment, memory and other cognitive functions. The brain breaks down — sometimes it happens quickly, and sometimes it's a slower process. But eventually, Taylor will no longer be able to operate some critical part of his body. Then he will die. Those are the facts of his condition, clean and precise as the exam rooms where his doctors diagnosed him. But if that's all there was to it, Taylor's life would be very different than it is.

Taylor's been an artist since childhood, boasting a career spanning decades. He's shown around Colorado and across the country, and his wildlife paintings in particular have found display as far away as the Wildlife and Environmental Conservation Society of Zambia, in that nation's capital, Lusaka. An elephant painting from 1985, called "Tuskers," marked the height of his commercial appeal, appearing on mugs, teapots, sheets and more.

"His early work in the rendering of wild animals is rich in pattern and color," says Jim Richerson, CEO of the Sangre de Cristo Arts & Conference Center. "His sense of design and implied movement in such pieces is very strong and lyrical."

Taylor has utilized that skillset for more than just producing money-making work: He has also relied upon his art to cope with turmoil and trauma, both internal and external. He's painted his pain and shared his own experiences living with bipolar depression.

"I've always jumped off cliffs and gone off and done something else," he told the Indy in 2011. "I've never been an artist who's stayed in one lane for long periods of time. Ever."

Despite his illnesses, Taylor remains prolific as an artist. He lives with Paul Welch, his partner of some three decades, at his longtime Pueblo West home, where every wall hosts Taylor's works, some decades old, some recent. Welch maintains an idyllic garden and goldfish pond in their backyard, fenced in by well-pruned junipers and trellises dotted with deep purple flowers, protected from the winds that whip across the surrounding flatlands. It's a beloved oasis; they spend time soaking up sun when the weather allows, while Taylor enjoys a cigarette, or just a break from his creative work, best tackled in the morning hours, he says.

Because at some point every day, whatever he's doing, Taylor's mental function hits a wall. He has to sleep for a little while before he can get back to writing or making art. His body quits on him, limiting his output and capabilities, slowly silencing the once-prolific artist within.

If there's a popular image of dementia, it has to do with short-term memory loss, and simple "senior moments" like leaving one's dentures in the fridge. But to Taylor it's more than what he terms "old timers' disease."

"I don't want somebody out there reading this," he says, "and going 'Oh, I forget things, and this happens to me,' and then they just brush it off, and they don't understand the profound effect it's having in my life and everything that I do."

Dementia expresses itself differently in different people, but Taylor currently experiences a loss of motor function, manifested most clearly as clumsiness. He's destroyed all of their good Pyrex dishes by thinking he's set them down properly when he hasn't; he says he doesn't realize there's something wrong until there's a crash and a mess on the floor. His penmanship suffers, too, less than ideal for a man who's been writing professionally for nearly two decades. Sometimes he can't even read what he's put to paper.

He also struggles with long-term memory loss. When he goes back to revisit his older work, especially the poetry and written work, it often feels like he's reading it for the first time. On a long enough timeline, that sounds relatable for most writers. But it's different for Taylor. The context of the piece doesn't come back over the course of the reading. He loses the information for good, and nothing can bring it back.

"I have a visual in my head of these billions of little strings of [blood] vessels that go to my brain... and they're suffocating and dying off," he says. "I came up with the word 'suffocating,' I don't know that I've ever read that, but that's the way I see it."

He first realized something was wrong while preparing for a retrospective of his work at Pueblo Community College's San Juan Gallery in 2011. He and Welch, along with two of Taylor's editors and two others, were helping set up selections of his art. "[There was] this unforgettable moment when all five of those faces were watching me with expectation, and I couldn't remember who they were," says Taylor, "and I'm thinking 'Who are these people and why are they looking at me like this?'"

It took three months of cognitive tests, MRIs and waiting for his neurologist to offer the vascular dementia diagnosis, at which time, he was prescribed a drug called donepezil.

"I took it the first time, and I just all of a sudden felt fantastic and clear," he says, noting that his responding so readily was the last step in confirming the diagnosis.

But donepezil won't help forever. Taylor's brain is still suffocating; the drug only slows the process. The decline doesn't happen all at once. It worsens over a series of "step downs," as Taylor and others describe them. When those happen, a whole swath of the "strings" he visualizes dies off, and he loses more brain function. He gets clumsier, and the words he's trying to say don't come to mind as easily.

"I am usually able to identify it with Paul and say 'You know I just lost a whole bunch more brain,'" he says. Still, he's holding up well enough seven years out from his diagnosis. He and Welch had discussions about selling their home and moving him into assisted living, but it hasn't been necessary, and both hope Taylor will be able to live out the rest of his days there. "I've been in these kinds of situations before," he says. "Yeah, I don't like it, yeah, they're unpleasant, but, hell, I'm used to dying."

Taylor first wrestled with terminal illness in 1996, when he was hospitalized with crippling upper torso pain.

"My common bile duct was blocked 99 and nine-tenths percent," he says. "Completely blocked. Nothing was passing through." The doctors found a hole in his pancreas, a "fish eye." He was preliminarily diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told he probably had six months to live.

"When [the doctor] said it was cancer, I thought 'I don't know what that word means,'" Taylor recalls. "All of a sudden, it was about me, and I didn't know what it meant."

He was told he'd be going into surgery that afternoon but, in shock, he didn't realize it was a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. Taylor remembers holding Welch tight, thinking how he'd rather spend his last days with his partner than in a bed with tubes going in and out of him every which way.

He went about wrapping up his business affairs in between goodbye trips with Welch. In particular, he fondly remembers voyages to Yellowstone National Park and Cabo San Lucas.

"In Mexico, we got some Mexican weed, and I was on Percocet at the same time, just sort of floating around," he recalls. "Every time I looked at Paul, I thought 'I'm going to lose this, and he's going to lose me too.'"

After that trip, Taylor got shocking news: His oncologist called to say he probably didn't have cancer.

"Because there was no biopsy, eight gastroenterologists had had a meeting and then, based on whatever data they'd collected on me, had voted and said I had pancreatic cancer," he says. "And I don't know what made the switch back, but at some point, she said no, that's not correct."

The pain comes back sometimes, but the doctors now call it idiopathic chronic pancreatitis, with idiopathic meaning, roughly, "we don't know why this is happening." After two decades of treatments and surgeries, he still meets with his gastroenterologist regularly, and he's been told pancreatitis will kill him more than a few times. Instead, it's armored him against the prospect of death.

"Paul's way of saying it... is I get to one of those places, and he says 'we've been through this door before.' That's all he has to say to me. And I go at ease."

Though he faces his health challenges daily, Taylor refuses to stop making art and responding to the world around him. Recently, he worked on a sculptural piece called "Misappropriated Habitat," exploring the places where human refuse has sullied what he says should be a place of comfort.

"What's happening here, and I'm sure it's happening in the Springs as well, is that there are just great caches of needles and paraphernalia that are found around," he says. "I used bird nests [for the piece] — real bird nests — I used shattered glass, shooter bottles that were whiskey I think, some feathers."

He set it all up in a cardboard box, something he's enjoyed as a medium lately. It's not acid-free or made to hold an image intact for decades to come, but he's not so much concerned about that anymore.

Taylor says he also found his poetic voice again in mid-2018, following a period when he hadn't been writing much of anything. He wrote three new pieces for the Colorado State Fair's 2018 poetry contest, which he'd won in 2017.

Taylor continues to respond to the world around him through his art. - GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell
  • Taylor continues to respond to the world around him through his art.

"I don't know where this is coming from, but I'm writing well right now," he says. "It seems ironic, because there's so much that I can't do. It just happens to be pleasing and, I think, successful."

Topically, he's acknowledged his illness and mortality. When the Indy spoke with him in 2012, ahead of his Business of Art Center (now Manitou Art Center) show titled for dying out loud, featuring coffee- and bleach-stained paper quilts covered in text, Taylor said "Americans... just do anything short of embalming themselves while their hearts still beat to evade the issue of death, and I see it everywhere."

Mostly, however, he's exploring contemporary subject matter.

"Ninety-eight percent of what I produce now has to do with fuckin' Donald Trump," he says. Like many, he watches Washington with the morbidity typically associated with rubberneckers slowing for a particularly nasty car crash. "Because I'm a writer, I want to be in tune with those little weird things that he does."

He's always had an eye for the topical, and especially since he started writing, he's been something of a firebrand. Gregory Howell — who hosted a 2017 retrospective show of Taylor's work at Pueblo's Kadoya Gallery and wrote a full retrospective of his career — recalls a heart-wrenching series of works Taylor did in response to the AIDS crisis. He used clothing, hangers and mannequin heads to construct a haunting and heartbreaking memorial to those who died.

"Spiel is not a shy guy," says the Sangre's Richerson. "We are fortunate that this gifted artist... calls the greater Pueblo area his home. His work most certainly enriches the local art scene."

But if it can be said that Taylor's made an impact on anyone, it's on Welch. Over the last three years, he has been Taylor's full-time caregiver.

"He tries to focus on his art and his writing," says Welch. "And that takes all of his energy. So he doesn't have a lot of energy left over for other things."

So when Welch, 64, isn't maintaining their garden with skills from a horticultural career, he's cooking, cleaning, doing laundry and making sure Taylor takes care of himself. He hits moments of frustration, as anyone does. But it's striking how well Welch keeps everything in perspective.

"It's better than dying young, you know," he says. "We could have been dead at age 40. Here we are in our 60s and 70s, both alive, and we try to be grateful for that."

Taylor knows just how much Welch's support has kept him going. A few years ago, he wrote a poem called "Leaving," about the slow loss of his faculties. Its final stanza reads:

"When I know no equivalent of dusk nor dawn and / you no longer feel a need to visit me, on the day / I am unable to miss you, you will know for certain that / I've forever lost my song."

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