Artist fights cancer, with cartoons

Scared sheepless
Day 312: Scared sheepless
Photo Courtesy of Chris Ayers

When Chris Ayers was originally diagnosed with leukemia, his doctor told him that if this had been 30 years ago, he would most likely be dead in a few weeks.

After the diagnosis, the treatment, including a bone marrow biopsy, came quickly. Then, Ayers had a week full of total body radiation.

Artist Chris Ayers
Artist Chris Ayers grew up in Minneapolis and is now a successful character designer for many Hollywood films.
Photo Courtesy of Chris Ayers

"They basically tape you down to a bed so you don't shift around and move too much," Ayers said. "Then I had a nice slow bake on both sides of my body. Each one was about 21.87 minutes. They timed it out very specifically."

The following months were a blur of continued radiation, chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant. Ayers said during his treatment he constantly thought of his love for drawing and the happiness it brought to his life. Exactly one year after his leukemia diagnosis, Ayers decided to give himself a creative challenge.

"I wanted to figure out how I could appreciate each day," Ayers said. "And drawing was sort of my conduit for that. So I decided to, on the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis, I was feeling pretty much back to normal health-wise and energy-wise and I thought it would be fun to try to draw one animal every day for a year."

That challenge led to 365 animal drawings collected in his book "The Daily Zoo: Keeping the Doctor at Bay with a Drawing a Day." Some of the drawings are highly-detailed charcoal sketches, while others are zany cartoons of imaginary animals.

Ayers describes his artwork as, "the fruits of the playground in his head." The drawings are an expression of what it took for him to face cancer and beat it. There's the snapping turtle drawn on Day 115 that's a visual metaphor for the recovery process--stubborn and slow. On Day 312, Ayers was thinking about his own mortality and created a drawing of a bewildered-looking sheep for the cartoon titled "Scared Sheepless."

Ayers transfusion
Artist Chris Ayers receiving a stem cell transplant from nurses at the UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Photo Courtesy of Chris Ayers

Through the hair loss, the nausea and the needle sticks, the project was a way to ensure Ayers spent each day doing the thing that gives him the most joy--drawing.

"Laying in that hospital bed I would think about that children's book that I had started and it was in progress," Ayers said. "I definitely wanted to finish this children's book. I had put so many hours into it already.

"I think on some level that certainly helps with the healing process. It's like I'm going to fight this. I have a reason to fight. And that plays a great role in helping one to recover. "

"The Daily Zoo" is a diary of sorts, and includes details about where the drawings were made; places like a doctor's office, a library, or an airport terminal.

Cancer patients often respond emotionally to Ayers' book. They tell him his work gives them hope and his cartoons even make them smile. But Ayers insists "The Daily Zoo" isn't just for sick people. He says his main message is not necessarily a new one--but it bears repeating. Life can be short, so why not have some fun?

"It can be cooking or gardening or sculpting or singing or solving math problems in a creative manner," Ayers said. "But I just hope that it might inspire people to really take a look at their own lives and see are they living life to the fullest and are they expressing their ideas in a creative manner. And if not, maybe they could incorporate that, even doing a little something each day I think is very beneficial."

Ayers has more film work ahead of him. His dream to become a character designer began after seeing the "Star Wars" movie as a child. He now spends his days creating aliens and other imaginary creatures that appear in Hollywood blockbuster movies like "The Incredible Hulk" and the new Star Trek film.

Chris Ayers did not put his pens and pencils away on the 366th day. He kept drawing, and is still creating a drawing a day. Ayers said his health is good and he's completed more than 1,000 straight days of drawing with no plans to stop.

Click here to view a slideshow of artwork from Chris Ayers' book, "The Daily Zoo".