pulitzer prize-luminary commended author
A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR , DOLLMAKER, AND SURVIVOR TIMOTHY BELLAVIA
Timothy “Timmy” Bellavia is an author, professor, music historian, and renowned dollmaker/creator of the “We Are All the Same Inside” Sage dolls and dollmaking workshops.
He is also an unapologetic survivor of skin cancer.
I met Timmy (he loathes the name “Tim”) on Social Media, Facebook to be exact. Perhaps discovering that I too am a survivor artist, he contacted me, or “poked” me, as Facebook terminology puts it. Being blind in half of both my eyes, I had not seen his “poke” which had been nestled in the left-side of the computer screen. It took me a year to finally see it, and when I did, I poked him right back. From that moment on, we became fast friends. I found out that he is a renegade survivor, but also a unique and subversive personality, a factor which has carved him an exciting space in the doll-making world.
Handsome and charming, Timmy is gregarious, energetic, and always in motion. With his often loud and quirky voice, he can best be compared to the cartoon character of, well, Foghorn Leghorn of Looney Tunes fame. I call him that on occasion actually.
He sat down with me to discuss being an artist surviving cancer, and the connections between art and illness.
AR: Timmy, thanks for being part of the profile series. What were the greatest challenges you faced in your treatment and recovery from skin cancer?
TB: There were many challenges. The first was accepting that you don’t really recover from any cancer. Being in remission just means it is a temporary recovery. It took a bit to adjust to going to the doctor regularly, losing modesty and staying calm. The second challenge was hearing my inner voice on auto repeat - “You did this to yourself!” I have to admit I enjoyed the burning sensation of the sun on my skin. It was an addiction and I miss it. This whole cancer situation for me was behavioral - not genetic.
R: How do you feel your survival from cancer has affected your art and writing?
TB: I have always been a survivor. Being an outsider has always been a stimulus for my art work or any piece of writing published. My diagnosis of melanoma was the first time I really thought about skin as an organ. It is just an organ on our bodies - but it continues to cause so much trouble across our planet.
In my own upbringing, I was shamed because of my pale complexion was in a sea of olive toned relatives. I was just 26 years old when diagnosed. When I got that call from the surgeon and was told I had to go back for more invasive surgery, medical photography and treatments I was all alone. It was then I decided to shift in my work and thought of a way that could show people that We Are All The Same Inside.
AR: You teach both adults and children (in the doll-making workshops). What has instilled your drive and passion for educating others?
TB: My drive and passion for educating others has been rooted in bridging the gaps in achievement. I receive many affirmative emails from former students stating they use the literacy strategies I taught them in college within their own classrooms. This always fuels me to explore more ways to teach in non- traditional ways that are arts based.
AR: How do you think undergoing and surviving health catastrophes impact the creative process?
TB: I’ve always used creative visualization to take me to a better place. When I rode the school bus to school I was bullied. Students would shout derogatory names like “faggot” coupled with, “Have good night” in an effeminate voice. I would stand and remain silent shammed in a frozen state. As soon as I got into my bedroom I would escape through magazines or music videos. I would pretend I was wearing blazers in New York City or daydream I was dancing with a popular singer on stage. Those fantasies became realities when I moved to Manhattan and was I hired to dance and tour onstage with Cyndi Lauper.
I pretty much did the same thing in while undergoing treatments for skin cancer. I used my imagination. I escaped and visualized myself in a healthy state. Another goal then was to create this doll and as soon as the sutures were taken out I was creating a prototype. The prototype doll would be eventually patented and named Sage. The Sage doll was designed with a soft external skin covering that can be bedazzled and removed from the stuffed inside. Once the skin was removed one would discover that all were the same inside.
AR: What is your opinion about the concept that art = pain?
TB: All my art equals pain. I produced, patented, printed, trademarked and over-drafted my personal finances to create my memoir Pieces of Ice, the We Are All The Same Inside book series and Sage doll making workshop. While I’m thrilled with their inclusion in schools, libraries, academic research, bibliographies and cultural institutions around the globe - I long for more exposure or awareness. While I am not without supporters - I’m totally the driving force behind all my artwork. Some painful moments often include when someone expresses interest in what I’m doing only as a veiled excuse to pick my brain for ideas on how to publish or cutting me out of a deal when a better opportunity comes along.
AR: What advice can you offer other survivors of cancer and physical illnesses?
TB: My advice to any survivor of cancer and other physical illness is to visualize yourself in a better state. Surround yourself with things and people you love. My nephew was recently was diagnosed with brain cancer. I plan to send him things he likes like Pokémon trading cards and Harry Potter memorabilia during his treatments.
AR: Your work primarily centers on issues of bullying -- and healing through self-empowerment. How important is self-empowerment in the attempt to overcome severe illness?
TB: My recent academic research continues to center on bully prevention. It is critical with schools and families to communicate with one another openly. If civility is not fostered in schools the damage can have lifelong effects on students such as mental illness as they come into adulthood. I can’t really state I was surround by family during my illness; but looking back I was raised by parents to be self-empowered and self-reliant. I was able to go forward manifest my creations and dreams. I even was able to create an extended “art family” that was supportive during Sloan Kettering treatments and very much today.
AR: Please tell us about your current projects.
TB: Current projects I am developing include a novelty picture book series of misunderstood yet famous women. Each book in this series will be illustrated with the Sage doll dressed up in the likenesses of Diana Ross, Joan Crawford, Madonna, Christine Jorgensen, et al. The first title in this series “Joan Crawford: Dollie Dearest” will be issued later this year. Each book is uniquely illustrated with one of a kind dolls photographed in unique settings and will include a forward by a notable public figure as well as have audio book versions.
Also in development are the documentary and an animated series based on the Sage character and the We Are All The Same Inside brand that will be both entertaining and educational. This will all coincide with the 15th Anniversary edition of my first children’s picture book and the Sage doll making workshop.
AR: What does 15th Anniversary edition of We Are All The Same Inside mean to you?
TB: Recently I sang out loud to a friend Billie Holiday’s “My Man (Mon Homme)” with alternative lyrics … “It’s cost me a lot, but there’s one that that I got. It’s my doll.”
The Sage doll is my life’s work. It means everything to me. I survived. I’m surviving. It’s all about survival. It’s my child in a sense. I want to protect Sage it in every way and exploit the We Are All The Same Inside ® message. It’s needed more than ever. It has always been my hope that anyone whoever creates a Sage doll ultimately will own the message that we are indeed all the same inside.
AR: What, do you believe, is your karma?
TB: My karma is simple... I often am lathering, rinsing, and repeating the same life patterns over and over again. . On one hand, I truly like having a routine and doing the same things over and over again (e.g. cut out patterns, sews dolls, run a workshop or seminar, etc.). On the other hand after being in business in New York City for all these years, I still question the validity of my work … my judgements and self-reliance time and again. Happily, I am planning put an end to the latter fears and ultimately rinse them away.