Monday, 6 April 2015

Father Dominic Rolls.  

The finished portrait and interview with Father Dominic Rolls, a Catholic priest and my youngest brother, is here and ready to join the A Graceful Death exhibition.  I am happy, relieved and grateful that it is finished, and that it has had its first showing at the Dying to Know event last month at Bournemouth.  Let me introduce you to Dominic, and beneath the painting is the interview in full. 

Dominic took some time to work out what he thought about the painting.  He knew it was him but did not see himself.  The more he looked, the more he saw it was his portrait, but it was of a person in the midst of chemotherapy, and post severe surgery.  It wasn't, Dominic said, who he is now.  It was when he was at his least well, and that is a difficult thing to see.  Dominic is on his second bout of chemo right now, a year has passed since his first round.  In that year he has given himself all the time and space he needed to accept his cancer, accept his treatment, understand and love his fears, and to enjoy his time.  Now, Dominic looks more well and more rested than he has ever done, and this portrait you see is about the beginning of the journey of can er, and it was not comfortable for Dominic to see it.  

But Dominic has give the painting his blessing, and has said it is very good and very  lever.  Please show it, he said, and thank you.

The painting shows Dominic in his clerical outfit, as a Catholic priest.  In his hands he holds his intravenous chemotherapy bag, attached to a pc line directly into his body, which took a couple of days to filter into his system after each session of chemotherapy at the hospital.  Dominic is holding this bag with characteristic good humour, and pointing to it as it was impossible to pretend it wasn't there.  I wanted to show Dominic's sweetness of spirit and his good humour, and his refusal to pretend that he was not ill, but having accepted his illness, to joke about it and to make of it the very best he can.

There will be no more portraits for this A Graceful Death exhibition.  It has 54 paintings and interviews now, it is big, loving, challenging and enough.  Father Dominic is the last Graceful Death painting I will do, and it is fitting that it started with Steve, my partner who I loved, and is finishing with Dominic, my brother who I love.  

Now, I will work with whoever wants to work with me, one to one, and the resulting paintings and words will be theirs to keep.  

Here he is.

The interview with Father Dominic Rolls

I went to interview Dominic in early Summer of 2014.  Dominic is my youngest brother, and at 51, has been diagnosed with an advanced cancer of the bowel.  After an operation to remove much of his lower bowel, Dominic is undergoing chemotherapy, and is living with his cancer.  The chemo is to shrink the secondaries in his liver. 
Because of the severity of his illness, Dominic left his parish in Dorking where he has been a parish priest for twelve years.  He stopped work completely and entirely in order to cope with the treatment and recovery from all that he was to undergo.  This is important.  Dominic has worked tirelessly and with dedication in his parish, which is very large.  To leave his home and church that suddenly, even in the hands of a good and trusted fellow priest, was not easy for Dominic.   It would be a very hard thing to do for anyone with a busy life with much responsibility.  So suddenly, Dominic has cancer, his treatment, and time on his hands.
We talked in the kitchen of the priest’s house in Horsham, where Dominic was staying with his good friend, Father Richard, while he has his treatment.  Here is an account of our conversation; Dominic himself, his faith, his illness and how he manages the reality of living with something that is trying to kill him.

Frailty versus Robustness

It comes down to frailty versus robustness.  Dominic is living with cancer and the symptoms of chemo, which has given him chemo brain.  Dominic was always very robust.  Strong, healthy and good at keeping fit.  Now, he is feeling frail.  It is a big change.  He is still able to live well, in fact, is probably living better now than ever, but is weak and gets tired easily.  He has, he says, a body rash, another symptom of his treatment. He has a metallic taste in his mouth and he gets very, very tired.  Sleep is difficult at nights, and though he has not lost his hair, it is thinner and there is a change of colour. 
On 17 January 2014 Dominic was diagnosed with colon cancer.  Nothing too big, it was thought.  On 28 January the cancer was upgraded to advanced following a CT scan, which showed a Dukes Staging T4 caecal carcinoma. This had spread to two lymph nodes in the small intestine and also to the liver. On 10 February Dom was operated on and given a radical right hemicolectomy (ie all the cancerous tissue was removed except for the lesions on the liver). The colorectal team at the East Surrey Hospital in Redhill was magnificent, says Dom, as were all of the nurses on Copthorne Ward.  The operation was a complete success and, because Dominic is strong, he recovered well in two months instead of three. His follow up chemo started a month early on 16 April.  Twelve sessions over a six month period.  Once every two weeks.
Amazingly enough for such a big bugger of a tumour, Dominic had no symptoms whatsoever. The cancer had grown mainly outside the bowel and passed through the omentum, the peritoneum and into the muscle wall. Two consultants operated together for three hours to make sure every trace of the disease was taken out. The lesions on the liver could be dealt with later with chemotherapy. The cancer was spreading but the surgeons met aggression with aggression. Dom had the image of a huge wave which was smashed up by bold surgeons before it could break.

The Gift of Focus

Dominic’s strength is the ability to focus and concentrate.  He has a good memory, is not that well organised personally, but does have the gift of analysing information and remembering what people say to him. Every cancer is different, though, and is difficult to predict.  The consultant interprets the data and gives an expert opinion, but can’t tell you exactly what is going to happen. The whole treatment is cancer led, not dictated by the consultant. Thus Dominic is realistic about information from his medical team.  The nature of cancer is to spread. If cancer is static it can begin to shrink and so it has to keep moving. It’s very good at moving. It uses body energy to feed and attach itself to healthy cells, making them cancerous. Cancer always seeks to be dynamic.  Dom just hopes it is not too dynamic!

How do you feel Dominic?

Partly in denial.  I don’t have cancer!  But mostly I am accepting.  Mostly I am at peace.  If God wants me he can have me.  I have no fear of death as my faith is strong, and as I get weaker it is more powerful and important to me.  I like to keep control, though, and what is dying but a cessation of control? Therefore I am frightened of dying.
So basically, I am at peace.  My daily prayer offering includes offering up the cancer, that is, I try to make a prayer out of it:  “Take Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, will and understanding.  Give me only your love and your grace, that’s enough for me” ( St Ignatius).  Grace.  Grace is the God given power to make right decisions in your life.
Secular society doesn’t have the vocabulary for this kind of thing.  Denial of God is just as much a faith as affirmation that He does exist, and is no less fervent in its zeal to get across its message.  My Catholic faith has given me a language of hope.  I make a prayer of my cancer, there is peace in my cancer. 
One Catholic doctrine that really helps is the communion of saints.  This refers not just to the Church here on earth, but also to the holy souls in purgatory and the saints in heaven.  We look out for each other. I feel great comfort from the thought of so many invisible friends rooting for me. A communion of supernatural and natural; the Church is both natural and supernatural.  And death is a gateway rather than the end.  This is very real to me, and cancer makes it more real.  I pray to the saints to give me strength and I pray for those in purgatory out of love and compassion.  Those who die having stains on their souls are helped through prayer to be purified of all that keeps them from the joyful vision of God in heaven. They are assured of blessed happiness but need a little help on the way. A bit like me. Through prayer we become ready to face God.  To me this is a living reality.  It is a consolation to believe in the Church, both natural and supernatural. All are praying for you and with you. It reminds me that death is not the end.

Working at Acceptance

I work at acceptance.  I don’t allow my life to be defined by chemotherapy and I set myself short term goals to help me cope with this whole process.  I work at accepting by concentrating on three different levels: the nutritional level, exercise and my spiritual discipline.
So in any two week period, the chemo and all that goes with it take about three days.  That leaves twelve days free.  I try and do positive things, like visiting friends and family, by stretching and challenging myself but always most importantly by listening to my body.  I rest, eat well and healthily (lots of fruit and veg), take food supplements to maintain the integrity of my digestive system during the onslaught of chemo, and try to pray with my whole body and not just my head. I exercise by walking for an hour a day, if I can.
Because I maintain a positive outlook on death, it doesn’t mean I am not afraid of dying.  I try to embrace the fear.  I treat it like any other symptom.  I lie down and think it through, I let emotion express itself, I don’t fight it.  For me fear can be manifested in anger and anxiety.  Fear of dying is an active part of the process of this cancer.  If you have an attitude about death, you can also have an attitude to life and living.  I try to live my understanding of what is happening and accept it, but I know this is not enough to cure the cancer.  I have to let go, but the anxiety about this illness sometimes makes me grab back whatever I am letting go.  I had to let go of being a parish priest. It is like I have been driving a train for twenty years.  Suddenly the points change, and I lose control and the train goes wherever it wants. I can’t control the train any more, every now and then I try and grab the controls but it doesn’t work, and I have to let go.
My personal prayer is for the grace to love and accept myself enough to engage with this whole process.  Both spiritually and physically.  The key thing behind my cancer experience is to love myself.  To allow myself to be depressed, accept myself in it and to let it pass.  The depressions that I have encountered are a result of a life shock.  It is not a chemical trigger.  The low spiritual morale that the depression brings shows itself in self-hate and anger with the world and those around me.  I try to rest and let it pass and it always does.  I pray into it as a form of acceptance.  Humour helps too.  Helps me not to be a pain in the ass to too many people.  At a barbeque recently I was amused by how people over worry about what I should eat.  They didn’t want to give me garlic bread because it was burnt on the outside and was carcinogenic.  “Too late!” I said and ate it anyway.
In parish life there is a big and constant battle with the spiritual forces of darkness.  A priest is very aware of doing good but can be uniquely susceptible to temptations and pressures.  When a priest does good it effects so many people well.  When a priest falls into temptation and is overcome by difficulties, it effects the same people badly. I have had to deal with anger.  Coming away from the parish has released the pressure – I can’t talk about personal pressures so much in the parish, why would I? I am just engaged with getting on with the work.  It would be like talking about shopping when one is shopping. I tell the truth and I do not pretend.  Coming out of the parish to deal with this cancer has given me the freedom to talk about myself honestly.
The key is to love yourself enough.  I find loving myself is a struggle, and I often fail.  But I need to recognise this daily struggle as beautiful and for the greater glory of God.  We do our best but sometimes we fail: “Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve, to give and not to count the cost, to fight and not to heed the wounds, to toil and not to seek for rest, to strive and to seek for no reward save that of knowing we do your holy will”.

Talking about cancer

At first, when I thought the tumour was small, I was slightly blasé about it.  After the 28 January, with the advanced diagnosis, it was shocking.  I had a priest friend with me at the consultation to report back to me what was really said. Tony was excellent and totally with me.  I would have forgotten what the consultant was saying to me, I would not have been able to take it all in. I was in shock.  It makes me aware that some people have to go home alone after such a diagnosis. They would not be able to take in what had been said and what was happening.  I am so grateful that I had someone good with me, and someone at home too so that I did not have to be alone. 
As a public figure I went public with the cancer.  It is a good thing to share it, and moving away from the parish has given me the freedom to do that.  Sharing the news of the cancer allows people to love and support you if they want.  A difficult side of telling people is in having to manage their expectations as well as yours.  You have to let them into your own uncertainty. “Will I live or will I die?”  I can’t say.  It is difficult to cope with “I don’t know”. 
I tend to live in my head.  Exercise and meeting people help me get things into perspective.  After a bad meeting with the oncologist when I heard that I have six liver metastases, I was very shocked and afraid.  But I had already booked a session in the gym for after the consultation, and within a couple of hours I felt brilliant.  I talked to my spiritual director about it, and then went on to have lunch with my brother so I felt a million dollars by the end of the day.  Two days later when the shock wore off I became depressed and angry.  That is when I had to try and accept it and love myself enough to engage with the whole process.
Here Dominic had to stop and go and rest.  I will finish here with his prayer from St Ignatius

“Take Lord, receive all my liberty, my memory, will and understanding. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.”

Monday, 12 May 2014

A Graceful Death blog for Dying Matters and Other Fab Things

I set up the exhibition a week today.  A week tomorrow, the exhibition opens, and in the evening we will host a small Opening Event, which will be filmed by EBS, Educational Broadcasting System, South Korea.

EBS are making a documentary in three parts to bring to the attention of the South Korean audience, the importance of not avoiding end of life discussions and preparations.  A Graceful Death is a very small part of their filming schedule, they are filming many different events during Dying Matters Awareness Week, and they are asking questions and listening to very eminent speakers in the UK on end of life matters.  The film crew, the producer and the organiser/translator from the documentary Docuprime were here in the studio yesterday filming and they are a good, professional, interesting and very high thinking outfit.  They flew in from South Korea to film in the UK, and we will see them again at the Opening Event next Tuesday.

I am delighted to have Dying Matters Association publish a blog about A Graceful Death, and in order for you to have instant access to it, click here -

The South Korean producer of Docuprime in the studio yesterday filming interviews with Claire Rudland, who has a portrait in AGD, and me, with a drawing of Claire I did for the camera.  

The programme of events for this A Graceful Death week - to book your place please email Peter Wells on or just turn up on the day.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Programme of Speakers and Events for the A Graceful Death exhibition in St Peter's Church, next to Preston Manor, Preston Park, Brighton BN1 6SD

There are more postings about the exhibition, please do have a look below this one to find out more.

This programme will run within the exhibition itself.  The paintings, films, music and poetry will be within the church from 10am to 10pm daily from Tuesday 20 May to Friday 23 May.  You will be able to spend time with the paintings, you will be able to speak to me, to the AGD team, you will be able to write your thoughts and you will be able to eat cake.  Always cake available.  Because there is so much to say on the subject of end of life, we are delighted to present the events and talks below, and thank everyone for their support and expertise.

Tuesday 20 May 6pm Private View - formally opened by Glynn Jones, Chair to the Friends of Brighton & Hove Hospitals  and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of East Sussex followed by introductory talk by the artist Antonia Rolls.  Harp music played by Jane Saunders.

Wednesday 21 May 2 to 4pm:  Session 1 Planning Dying - Much can be done way ahead of someone dying; raising awareness is not as difficult as it seems. 
Panel speakers : Eleanor Langridge Dementia Speaker on EOLC; Rachel Reed - Palliative Care Lecturer, St Barnabas Hospice Worthing; Rev Canon Peter Wells, Senior Chaplain, BSUH.
Panel chair: Alan Bedford - Former NHS Chief Executive, Non Executive Director Martlets Hospice.

Wednesday 21 May 6 to 7pm: Session 2 Dementia Information Session - Nigel Spencer Dementia Friends Champion.

Thursday 22 May 2 to 4pm: Session 3 Supporting Dying - Being alongside patients and families - knowing what help is at hand.
Panel speakers: Dr Mark Bayliss, Consultant in Elderly Medicine BSUH; Dr Simone Ali, Consultant in Palliative Medicine at the Martlets Hospice Hove; Nigel Spencer, Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner, St Catherines Hospice Crawley.
Panel chair: Professor Bobbie Farsides BSMS

Thursday 22 May 6 to 8pm : Session 4 An early Evening Salon on The Art of Dying - Ars Moriendi.
Contributors: Dr Muna AlJawad, Consultant in Elderly Medicine, BSUH,  Medical Students at BSMS, Rev Robert Eastern, Chaplain to Brighton College.

Friday 23 May 2 - 4pm: Session 5 Communicating with the Dying - Having a conversation - are the dying any different to the rest of us?
Panel speakers: Dr Catherine Gleeson, Palliative Care Consultant, St Catherines Hospice, Crawley; Dr Rose Turner, Palliative Care Consultant, the Martlets Hospice, Hove; Dawn Allen, Chaplain, the Martlets Hospice, Hove.
Panel chair: Professor Bobbie Farsides BSMS

Friday 23 May 6 - 8pm: Session 6 Working with the dying - Taboo or not Taboo, that is the question?
Panel speakers:  Antonia Rolls, A Graceful Death Artist; Mandy Preece, Soul Midwife for Macmillan Unit, Christchurch Hospital.
Panel chair: Nigel Spencer, Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner, St Catherines Hospice, Crawley

Friday 23 May 20h30 Closing thoughts to end of exhibition.

All events are free to attend but due to limited seating and high level of interest booking recommended via email to

Donations to support the exhibition welcome 

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Our poster for the next A Graceful Death exhibition in Preston Park, Brighton.

You are warmly invited to the exhibition below. An update of our speakers and topics will follow by the end of the week.

Grateful thanks to the excellent Team AGD Brighton

  • Nigel Spencer - palliative care nurse at St Catherine's Hospice, hypnotherapist for cancer sufferers 
  • Revd Canon Peter Wells, senior chaplain at Royal Sussex County Hospital
  •  Rachel Reed George, lecturer in palliative care at St Barnabas Hospice
  • Rhona Reedie, graphic artist and designer

Friday, 28 March 2014

AGD in Preston Park, Brighton, this May. Exhibition, Public Discussions, Events and Presentations

A Graceful Death exhibition and project is part of Dying Matters Awareness Week.

Steve, in Worthing Hospital.  The first face I saw as I walked into the room was afraid, vulnerable.  The second face was seconds later, when he had composed his expression so that he was in control for all the people that would be coming and going for the day.


The A Graceful Death exhibition is coming to Brighton.

 St Peter's Church, next to Preston Manor, Preston Park, Brighton BN1 6SD.

Opening Tuesday 20 May and closing Friday 23 May.  

10am to 10pm.   Entrance Free, donations and contributions accepted (and encouraged)


The A Graceful Death exhibition in Preston Park, Brighton, is part of Dying Matters Awareness Week, and part of the Brighton Fringe Festival. 

You are invited to take part in the events planned for the week, each day covers a different aspect of end of life.

2 - 4pm daily and 6 - 8 in the evenings.   

Suggested Donation for these public debates and discussions - £5

Wednesday 21  May "Planning Dying"
Thursday 22 May "Supporting the Dying"
Friday 23 May "Communicating with the Dying"

Discussions chaired by 

 Bobbie Farsides, Professor of Clinical & Biomedical Ethics, Brighton and Sussex Medical School

Alan Bedford, Non Exec Director Martlets Hospice, child protection consultant & former NHS CEO.

Speakers include palliative care consultants and nurses, end of life care staff, hospital chaplains, consultants in care of the elderly, soul midwife Mandy Preece, and me, talking about telling the stories of the dying through art and words.

Plus Dementia Information Sessions by Dementia Friends Champion Nigel Spencer.

Check back on this site soon for the names of the speakers

The A Graceful Death exhibition is an experience, not just an exhibition.  Fifty two paintings, portraits of people who have agreed to tell their story, paintings representing the process of grief, and poetry sent in by visitors to the exhibition moved to express their own stories and thoughts.  Music, composed for the exhibition by musician Lizzie Hornby, will be playing plus filmed interviews of sitters talking about their dying by photographer Eileen Rafferty.   A film about the work of A Graceful Death made by Neill Blume will also be showing


The A Graceful Death experience is made up of your response.  The paintings are powerful, raw, honest, loving, uplifting and real.  The words from each sitter accompanying the portraits are unsentimental and profound, it will be hard not to be moved and hard not to want to question this process of dying, of the end of life. This is what I want.  I want to know what you are thinking, what the end of life means to you, and how you respond to these stories and images.  I ask my sitters two main questions - Who are you? and What do you want to say?  This is very important during all of our lives, but most important at the very end.  My sitters want to be seen and heard, they want their images and what they say to help people face the subject of dying.  None of them expected it, it was always a shock.  By taking part in this important exhibition, they are saying that you still have the time to prepare.  Use the time, so that unlike them, you are ready.

Claire Rudland, the latest sitter for the A Graceful Death Exhibition.  Claire's words for this painting are below
"A landmark the consultant said is the two years coming up since the end of my treatment as the end of this year. The longer I'm OK, the better my chances. This is what spurs me on, to do these things while I can, and for as long as I can. It doesn't mean that I don't 'brick it' sometimes but that is part of the excitement of pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I may have said I didn't travel for ten years because I was afraid of flying and what happened? I got a life threatening disease anyway. I realised that when my time is up, it's up, whatever I will be doing, wherever I am. So now, the gift of cancer, conversely, has given me the gift of life, the gift of living. I'm no longer afraid of death as I've 'been there'. No way do I want to die, and it would be lovely to go slowly in the safe haven of the Hospice, say, when my time comes, but who knows? None of us know. It would be nice if it's not a violent death, none of us want that. I couldn't sleep this morning, so decided to message you."

Grateful thanks to Team AGD Brighton for all the hard work and dedication -

Nigel Spencer, palliative care nurse at St Catherine's Hospice and hypnotherapist for cancer sufferers, Revd Canon Peter Wells, senior chaplain Royal Sussex County Hospital and
Rachel Reed George, lecturer in palliative care St Barnabas Hospice.

If you want to know more, email me on  Updates on this site as they happen.  See you at the exhibition.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

New Blog Up And Running

I couldn't wait for the website to be ready, I have created the new blog today and this is up and running.  There will be work news in the next posting, this first posting was a reflection of today.  A true reflection of an artist at home!  Follow me on this one and I very much look forward to seeing you there  Much love to you all

Thursday, 28 June 2012

A Graceful Death has been the best thing that I have ever done (apart from having my children).  It has opened my eyes, it has opened my heart and it has made me look into what I take for granted in my life.  I have lost a belief in the Divine, and found it again.  A part of me died and because of that, a new path became clear.  I have found the way I want to go and the kind of work that I want to do.  And so the part of me that died, perhaps, had to go anyway.  Something new was born, and that is the work I do with end of life issues both as a painter and artist, and as a Soul Midwife.

This blog has been so important in the journey I have taken with A Graceful Death so far.  I have logged onto it all my news and thoughts, and have put up the paintings as I have been doing them, since 2009 when I held my first exhibition in my house.  I have used it to express myself and I have used it to inform you all of what I am doing and when.

Very soon, I will be using a new website which will incorporate all the work I do.  Linked to this new website will be a new blog where I will post all my news and paintings and events.  Some of you may have followed the other blog that I write, where I tell of my life and times as and Artist and Mother in Bognor Regis.  I want to combine both blogs and to write only one.  In this new blog I will put all my news, my A Graceful Death news, my Soul Midwife news, my other artistic news (for example, I have just finished illustrating a new book on the life of Jesus, due for publication in July next month.  Totally different work from the end of life work, and just as wonderful).  I will tell you all of the exhibitions as they come up, and the things that I am doing that you may be interested in visiting.  I will also tell you of the amazing people that come into my world and go out again, and the amazing people that are stuck with me (eg my children.  All grown up but still astonishingly unregulated.)  I will tell you about the discussions I have with people who inspire me, like last night talking with my dear friend and writer (and eccentric) Olivia Fane.  She told me of her thought crimes and went over what she was going to say at a literary festival next month.  She told me of the Ego and the I, and how she began to write her books and plan them after a strange event during the night in her house in Cambridge (something nasty in the woodshed etc).  And then I shall tell you about the meetings I will have with my Soul Midwife friends in Brighton tomorrow, and what we shall come up with to make our work better.

Lastly I will write about how my friend will come on Sunday to my studio, to make a Life Board with photos, material, paper, feathers, beads, words, poems and so on.  We will create her story on a piece of wood, onto which she will stick the things, images, words and thoughts that best describe who she is today after having been through the loss of the love of her life.  I know this is a very good thing, I have done them for myself, and they speak volumes in ways we could not imagine.  She, my friend, is recently widowed and is oh so very sad.  More sad than anything ever in her world.  Eileen, my dear photographer and colleague and friend will come too and photograph the event.  If this is helpful and good, which I think it will be, I will offer this as a workshop for A Graceful Death alongside the poetry workshops run by my friend and poet Penny Hewlett.

So much to say, so much to write, so much to do.  Life is good, when it isn't being bad.

Bear with me.  When my new website is ready (it is being designed and created by Neill Blume who made the film of AGD) I will launch it with a teeny fan fare. I will post on here the address and from the new website, you will be able to see the new blog link.  And then you can follow me to the ends of the earth.  We shall have fun.

Thank you!  See you soon.  Antonia.