If you attended this year’s Weapons of Mass Creation Fest, you’ll remember Troy DeShano. Artist, illustrator, speaker, Troy stepped up to the Artists in Residence stage podium and told a story part trying, part terrifying, totally triumphant: his own.
Troy is known for Strong Odors, an editorial illustration, art and essay blog, he began in the spring of 2009. Strong Odors began after a conversation with friend Kelly Nogoski, whom shared with Troy the concept of earning a living through blogging, a thought he found ridiculous, awesome and enjoyable, quite perfect as he was attempting to exit the magazine industry anyways.
Also the creator of the Old & New Project, a growing biblical art and design collection he runs with fellow artist and designer Jim Lepage, Troy spends his days in marketing, designing websites and managing social media for clients.
Humble, down-to-earth and unassuming in every way, Troy took the time to tell me a little bit about how he got into design, what tried to derail him, and how he fought back.
In his words…
I am a Michigan native currently stationed up-north in Traverse City, which is actually a pretty cool little town for being relatively off the grid. It is a really beautiful place to live, with Lake Michigan and Sleeping Bear Dunes just minutes away, along with hundreds of acres of state forests across the street from my house, and at least a dozen different species of trees literally right in my own backyard (decent Chinese food is a little hard to come by though).
My wife Noël and I were married in 1999, and have three kids (our oldest just started middle school—yikes).
My education was geared toward ministry work, and both Noël and I planned on some sort of career in ministry. But no matter what jobs I ever landed, I always ended up creating visual components for the work at hand. I regularly spent way too much time creating posters or videos or announcements to hang on the bathroom door. I kind of became a designer by accident.
Diagnosis Meets Design
My first cancer diagnosis was when I was just finishing school. I had big plans to move to Michigan that summer to start what I hoped would be a career in youth camps, but instead I ended up spending it in the hospital for chemotherapy, which shifted the trajectory of my life’s next decade.
What is really interesting is that when I finally did end up working at a camp, it started me on this path toward art and design. While creating all those random videos and bathroom signs, my boss recognized there was value in what I was doing and hired me as their Media Director.
I’d never even opened Photoshop or any pro video editors before and had been hacking Pinnacle Studio to make the raddest promo vids I could, but when my position became “real” I had to pick up those tools and learn to use them.
Of course just when things were finally looking up, with a real job and a chance to make a living creating cool stuff for an organization I loved, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer for the second time.
A second testicular cancer diagnosis is actually quite unusual, and my second bout was much more serious. We’d managed to have a few babies before I lost the last of my balls that year, and our family spent much of 2006 travelling back-and-forth from northern Michigan to the Cleveland Clinic for treatment. Over the course of that year I endured a bunch of chemo, a couple lung surgeries to remove tumors, and one big retroperitoneal lymph node dissection, which basically means they sliced open my abdomen—from sternum to pelvis—and scraped out lymph nodes to prevent cancer growing and travelling around my body.
I used to lug my big Dell laptop along when I’d check in for chemo. I’d spend the week in my hospital bed creating work that I think had much more emotion because of where I was and my circumstances at that very moment.
It’s pretty difficult to explain the magnitude of my cancer’s impact on my work. Having survived days and nights that I thought I might not has taught me (among many things) how precious every single moment of life is, how to open up and share pieces of myself I’d prefer to keep stowed away inside, and how to invest intimate pieces of myself into my work.
Since then I’ve been blessed with great health, and the odds are supposedly in my favor. At this point, however, I’ve been on the low end of the statistics too many times to put any stock in statistics. I have to spend the day leading up to each annual check-up mentally preparing for what could be the worst possible news, but I spend every single other day grateful and happy to be alive.
I have learned, that life isn’t something to be endured, it is an adventure.
Sometimes it is ugly, sometimes beautiful; sometimes wretched, sometimes sweet.
More often than not I get knocked down by the waves, but I head back toward the breakers over and over hoping the next one will be totally bodacious.
If life isn’t tossing me into adventure, I’ve learned to make some for myself. So I now try to take little adventures every day (whether taking the stairs rather than the elevator, or trying new foods, or wearing bike shorts), and big adventures regularly (like backpacking and mission trips and art shows).
I honestly believe that cancer saved me in a lot of ways. My marriage, for example, may not have endured had we not been thrust together into survival-mode for the first decade. There’s also a good chance I might have never started doing fine art without having first been forced to allow the world into the innermost recesses of myself from which the best art ultimately comes. It’s possible I’d have always been creating, but might never have developed the courage to display my work to anyone outside my home.
Many of the emotions that I experienced might be a surprise. I often felt guilty actually, that my wife had to spend so much energy taking care of me and the babies and wondering what her life might be like if I die.
There were a lot of things I didn’t even realize I was experiencing until years later when I started regular counseling. The greatest of these is how fear was at the center of my life. My failure to make decisions or relationships or take risks in my work all had fear at the center.
I’m working on that now. Each year I try to find ways to face specific fears. This past year I really made an honest effort to tackle my fear of dancing. I actually got out on the dance floor at several weddings for a little head-bobbing. It may not sound like much to most, but…
Dancing is quite possibly my Everest.
Ultimately, recognizing what fears I have is an effort to be honest with myself about myself. And the truth—so they say—will set you free.
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