Life as Art
Posted by Bonnie Roter
I met the revered artist Robert Guinan and his partner, Rita O’Hara, when he became a home patient with JourneyCare and I became his nurse case manager.
Bob had a fascinating life. Born in New York, he spent time in the military, then moved to Chicago and attended the School of the Art Institute. He then taught art at New Trier High School and the Art Institute, eventually becoming an independent artist. His art focused on tough scenes of Chicago’s West Side, street musicians and life along Maxwell Street.
He became especially famous in Europe. Bob’s son, Sean, explained to The Chicago Tribune his theory on the reason why:
"'...his subject was the slum life of an American city. Americans didn't want to see this aspect of themselves. To the French, it was exotic. To Americans, it is a mirror to what they maybe don't want to see.'"
Bob himself could be sarcastic and gritty, with a dry sense of humor and a sadness about him. He was very aware and realistic about his non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis. And when he began hospice, he focused on the doctor’s prognosis that the cancer would end his life within six months.
Because of that, Bob chose to stop his beloved painting and, instead, focused on getting his affairs in order.
But then the six-month mark passed and Bob realized he had outlived his prognosis. With the peace of mind that his affairs were settled, he returned to his life’s work as an artist. It was as if he had a new lease on life, though he remained pragmatic. Often he would tell me, “This is my last painting.”
Yet Bob spent the good part of most days painting piece after piece. Even as his health declined, he spent as many hours as he could in his upstairs studio. The only time he took a break was during several stays in our Marshak Family Hospice CareCenter, where he came when needing extra care due to falls and other complications from his illness. Our care teams got to know him well, often seeing the sweet side of Bob that was a key part of him, too.
Even as Bob’s eyesight failed him, he fought to keep painting. He moved some of his studio props to the main floor of his home and switched to drawings.
During the last months of his life – and a total of nearly two years in hospice – Bob was able to fully complete his work by selling nearly 30 of his remaining pieces, even donating a painting to the Marshak Family Hospice CareCenter.
I cherish the times Bob would show me his work throughout our days together. I was fortunate to be his nurse long enough to see at least 10 of his “last paintings” and to see how the support of hospice helped him enjoy his passion for art during his final days.