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About "The Way Through Project"

Alison Chandler lives in the small fishing village of Johnshaven on the NE coast of Scotland south of Aberdeen. The cottage she shares with her husband, Miles, is 50 yards from the high-tide mark (except in winter when it is closer and sea-foam slaps on the windows and covers her magical garden with driftwood).  She was born, just too young to really be a hippy (though she tried) outside Dundee and had a paint brush in her hand as soon as a pencil.  Her family were fundamentalist atheists and wordsmiths – writers, journalists, lecturers, historians, broadcasters surrounded by artists – and Alison’s teachers thought she “read widely from encyclopedias” at age 7.  She was the healthiest and happiest of her three siblings and expected to go to art college. Instead she studied Spanish & Hispanic Studies at Edinburgh University, spending time in Catalunya and Santiago de Compostela as Spain emerged slowly from the grip of fascism and reading Fine Art and Aesthetics as part of her 1978 degree.  A few black years passed before she found her husband and vocation developing third sector organisations in London till their daughter was born.  Moving back by the millennium to the Mearns of Scotland where she had holidayed as a child, she continued her career and kept on playing with half-hearted artistic ideas.  In October 2015 she walked on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela (The Way of St James the Apostle) and spent the following year writing a memoire centered on that life-changing experience.  Then disaster struck.


Investigations at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary discovered a burst appendix, a bowel tumour, a blood clot and diverticulitis.  Emergency surgery resulted in an ileostomy.  The wound became infected and had to be opened and a vacuum pump provided to go home with.  A life threatening nose bleed in the middle of the night and then a pump malfunction set Alison back further.  A few days before Christmas cancer was confirmed to have reached Stage 4 and spread to the abdominal lining.  Surgery could only be performed at Basingstoke in SE England and would  not be contemplated without significant chemotherapy first.  However  even mild chemotherapy was too risky until the wound healed, until Alison was no longer anaemic from the blood loss and the ileostomy had settled its functioning.


In January she began exploring her feelings through painting, mainly in brightly coloured inks, as she strengthened physically but grew in fear of both possible paths ahead: one of being untreatable the other of being made ill by treatment. She had no religious faith to turn to.  Meanwhile, she and her husband helped their daughter apply and be interviewed for university, watched her fall in love for the first time and commute each cold dark morning and evening the long journey to college in Dundee.


Alison painted in minute detail – when she felt weak or sore she could at least make multiple dots on a page and distract her mind from looking ahead into the abyss.  Over time she found herself searching for understanding of her situation and of herself.  Words had long since become problematic – incomprehensible medical terms, words with huge and terrifying power, words far too weak to make others understand what she was feeling.  Alison shared her pictures on social media to tell her friends her feelings.  She produced a picture every 2 or 3 days during 16 fortnightly cycles of chemotherapy from February 2017, carrying on while in the Anchor Unit at ARI with a drip in  her arm and 9 hours a day at home.  She was not expected to cope well with the treatment and to have to have a blood transfusion within 6 cycles.  In fact she had no sickness or diahorrea and bloods that stayed normal.  Friends and family found her strong of spirit and cheerful most of the time, though there were crashes too and always painting helped her through.  Many donated boxes of materials and gradually a clamour – from beyond her circle of friends - mounted for Alison’s work to be exhibited.  Alison herself, conscious that she had no professional training, subdued by her knowledge of “great art”, and feeling the intensely personal nature of her pictures, pushed all suggestions aside. 


In summer 2017, Alison and her family received the news that though the cancer was being reduced by treatment it would not be cured that way and that the specialists would not consider operating for a year.  In this limbo their lives still moved forward.  At a reunion with school friends a wealthy friend tried to buy a picture. Daughter Holly began to take up her unconditional offer to study theatre production and design in Liverpool.  Alison was invited to Capetown, South Africa to the opening of a facility she had helped get going. The date was exactly a year since she became ill.  The clamour continued and Alison at last gave in and let the voices for what is now The Way Through Project come together.  This website is one of the results. Another is Alison’s memoir “Walking Backwards (Up an Apostle’s Nose)” which only touches on a story of cancer and painting but tells a wider and deeper story of Europe and fascism, love and respect, Spain and Scotland. It explains why  it is that Alison’s first thoughts on knowing she was going into emergency surgery were “I am so glad I walked on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela”.

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