Battling cancer, Boise senior artist reflects on his life
His hands are big and strong from a lifetime of work, but when he picks up the carving next to him, they’re soft and gentle, following the curves of the wood carved smooth. Almost 10 years ago, he and his tools turned this chunk of English walnut into a mother fox sitting alert over her three young kits. Their heads poke out of the den, ready for action.
He says: “She’s my little princess fox.”
On the bottom, where he signed the carving, he also made a tick mark for each hour that he worked on the piece. Fifty of them. Fifty hours it took to carve the fox.
“Like a woman giving birth to a baby — I gave birth to the object here; it’s part of me.”
Roy Bosley is almost 85 years old. He spent 32 years of his life working at Simplot in the food group; he’s a scientist. He lived and worked internationally, including many years as a consultant. He loved his work.
But Roy makes a distinction between his career — his vocation — and his equally important avocation.
“That’s what your hobby is. You play golf, that’s an avocation. You like tennis, that’s an avocation. If want to do watercolors, that’s an avocation. ...”
Throughout his life, Roy has sought out making art in one form or another — oil painting, watercolors, metal work, pen and ink sketching and his wood carving — his avocations. Where he didn’t have the skills, he sought out teachers. Where he had a hankering to try something new, he tried it. If he wanted to be better, he practiced.
“It is never too late to try something new.”
• • •
That’s pretty much his mantra, and Roy loves sharing his love of art. He admonishes people to find a teacher to help them pursue their interests — no matter their age or skill level.
It wasn’t until he was in his 30s, married with an infant son, that he first took up oil painting. Every Wednesday evening, he’d go to his teacher’s house and they’d paint from 6 p.m. to midnight — because those were the hours he had available.
The demands of his work eventually hampered his ability to do art for a number of years. But when he had a bit of time, he’d grab his sketchbook.
“Pen and inks are my favorite — something I could carry with me. If I had nothing, I could always find a piece of printer paper and sketch something.”
Sketching or painting turned out to be a conversation starter that would invariably lead to interactions, to friendships, to a deeper view of the world.
“You’d be sketching something, people would be around, ‘Oh, what are you? An artist?’ Oh, no, I just like to sketch and draw things and paint things. ... (People) were very friendly.”
And he would know. Over his lifetime, Roy has traveled in 114 countries and lived in 54. And he would advise others to do the same.
“There’s a whole world out there. Travel the world to understand how people live. Who are the people living in Germany? Who are the people living in Russia?”
The answers? They’re in Roy’s sketchbook and his paintings.
• • •
After Roy retired, he started looking around for something to do with his time — and there was his avocation waiting for him. But instead of returning to oil painting, this time he thought he’d try woodcarving.
“Why? Well, I don’t know. You pass a bakery shop and see a cherry pie in the window. You say, oh, I’d like a cherry pie and you go and buy a cherry pie. That’s what I did. I could see things that I thought would be wonderful to carve, but I didn’t know how to do it.”
Roy’s pastries were a book, some tools, a block of soft basswood. He started carving small Santa Clauses and birds, and with more confidence moved on to bigger blocks of wood.
“There’s always another mountain to climb.”
Roy turned a 24-inch chunk of cherry tree into a wind-blown cyprus tree with a bigger fox family nested in the hollow beneath. From a huge piece of walnut, he carved a trio of elephants marching around the curves logging a teak forest, inspired by his travels in Thailand. When a neighbor gave him a big chunk of pine, Roy created a miner panning for gold in a river canyon, featuring a few real gold flakes from a vacation in Alaska. The piece features an optical illusion: he’s carved it in such a way that the canyon looks longer and deeper than it actually is.
“‘How did you do that?’ (people ask). Time and effort.”
But the ideas kept coming faster than Roy could carve them. So he took up power carving, and with an electric, flexible shaft, he could do work in an hour that would have taken him all day to do by hand.
“It became a tool of expediency. It also became a tool that’s cost me my life. ... ”
That’s not exactly known for a fact. Roy has a chronic, unexplained infection in his lungs that might be from inhaling wood particles with a fungus. So he left woodcarving behind, and at age 70, decided to learn how to do watercolors — a demanding, precise medium. But he was always one for a challenge.
• • •
Just a few months ago, The Terraces hosted an afternoon show of Roy’s lifetime of work. It was a way for Roy and his neighbors to see all that they have to offer each other — and it was a glorious, affirming afternoon. But just weeks afterward, Roy learned that he has leukemia. It’s a fast-growing version, and because of his fragile health he’s not a candidate for chemotherapy.
“I think I’ve accepted it reasonably well. Better than reasonably — I’ve accepted it quite well. I don’t cry over the fact that I have a leukemia; I don’t hide the fact that I have leukemia. ...”
In a health crisis six months ago before the diagnosis, Roy’s kidneys stopped and his arteries began shutting down.
“(The doctor) said you have three hours to live. I mean, (now) I have 90 to 120 days. That’s a lot longer than three hours. So I beat death one time.”
He’s not accepted that his prognosis means simply waiting; he’s radically changed his diet, he does internet research about his cancer, he eats zero sugar. However, the new hearing aids and the new computer that he’d like? No need to get them now, he says.
“I don’t make any long-range plans.”
On a calendar, Roy counted down 100 days from his diagnosis. It lands on his wife’s birthday; the 101st day is their 59th wedding anniversary. Although his family is not sure what to make of Roy’s calendar, he jokes:
“My wife said you better get me a damn good birthday present. I said I'm going to give you one. … You’re going to get my half of all the joint tenants of survival. … It’s a good birthday present for you if I die.”
Still, it’s hard. Some days he feels good, some days he doesn’t, and there’s no telling. But as he’s always been able to find an artist medium to sustain him, Roy has returned to his old favorite, the pen and ink drawings. He has a keen eye for landscape and architecture — so, of course, he’s challenging himself with portraits.
The sketches and his art show continue to be a lesson for others: Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid to try something new — ever. Want to learn watercolors at age 70? Go sign up for a class. Pursue that avocation.
And Roy has a bit of advice to those who still have things like that on their bucket list:
“If you’ve got more buckets you want to kick and you’re able to kick them — then do it.”
Along the way, he says, make peace with yourself.
“I can’t be telling people how to live their life. ... You have to live the life of cancer. You may be in a position they may cure your cancer; you may be lucky. Or you may get one or two more years of life. But eventually the grim reaper is going to catch you.
“You just have to make peace with yourself and live, one day at a time.”