In a waiting room at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Benji Weinryb Grohsgal sits, drawing on an iPad. It’s a new process. He’s used to using scissors, craft paper, and paint.
His digital drawings are raw, symbolic, and a bit irreverent. There are bananas in various poses, a stoplight-like stack of eyes, undies inspired by swim-cap flowers, and a chicken wing with a sad gap-toothed face. Making art, for Weinryb Grohsgal, is something spontaneous, a process of letting “whatever falls out” of his imagination take shape.
In June, a “weird” taste in his mouth prompted Weinryb Grohsgal to visit a doctor. He had just moved back to New York City after living in Provincetown for three years. Doctors initially attributed his symptoms to a virus. But tests were inconclusive, and they ordered an MRI. The results indicated a cavernoma, a cluster of abnormal blood vessels in his brain. “At least it’s not brain cancer,” he remembers thinking.
Then, Weinryb Grohsgal had a stroke. His neurologist linked it to the cavernoma. But as summer progressed, the paralysis on his right side worsened, and Weinryb Grohsgal repeatedly found himself in the ER. Eventually, a biopsy revealed his symptoms were caused by gliosarcoma, a rare and aggressive brain tumor.
Weinryb Grohsgal barely remembers getting the diagnosis or the weeks just after that. “I was a total and complete mess,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything for myself.” But he did decide to return to his childhood home in Philadelphia to be closer to family.
Weinryb Grohsgal’s tumor is growing into his left basal ganglia, the part of the brain primarily responsible for motor control, leading to limited mobility on the right side of his body. “My right side just doesn’t work,” he says. “It takes me so much longer to do anything because I can’t use my right hand.”
He has focused on adapting his approach to making art. Weinryb Grohsgal’s previous works were mostly cut-paper installations in public spaces or on bodies, including his own. Now he’s producing works digitally, using an iPad and Procreate, a digital illustration app. For someone whose day job is software engineering, the technology is not the hard part.
What was tough, at least at first, Weinryb Grohsgal says, was the leap to left-handedness. His first drawings on the iPad were terrible, he says. But he’s getting used to it, and he’s discovering iPad versions of his earlier spontaneous techniques. “I don’t even use a stylus,” he says, “just my finger.”
His latest digital drawings depict playful abstract scenes with flat colors and layered shapes. They have an edgy, lo-fi vibe and seem to belong in a video-game-like alternate universe all his own, yet familiar. A smiley-faced soft-boiled egg with a pair of legs looks straight at the viewer. It is part of Weinryb Grohsgal’s story: “I want to present to you soft egg,” says his Instagram post with the illustration. “Soft egg got me through those early dark times before treatment.” It reminds you of some primal comfort and you can’t help smiling back at this goofy character.
An advantage of Weinryb Grohsgal’s new digital canvas is that it can travel with him, even to his radiation treatments, which for now take place every weekday. Even in the waiting room of the hospital, he finds scenes and objects he wants to draw. “Sometimes there’s no wait, sometimes it takes two hours,” he says. “Then they zap me.” Each treatment lasts only minutes.
Weinryb Grohsgal launched a website with his new work and has been selling prints for $80 to $140. The characters he creates show up on T-shirts and mugs, too. “I used to have a right hand and now I don’t,” reads his online greeting. “So, I switched to digital, retrained my brain, and away we go.”
He says the support he’s received for the store has been significant. His friends and followers post photos with their new framed prints on social media. “Helping support @Meat_market kick cancer’s butt!” reads a follower’s story reposted on his Instagram account.
Right now, Weinryb Grohsgal’s life is busy. He’s juggling doctor’s appointments, making art, and spending time with friends who visit from Provincetown and other parts of the country. “It feels good to have everyone come down to see me,” he says. “Cancer is not that interesting. We just talk about the gossip.”
Weinryb Grohsgal says he’s “cruising through” radiation and will get a month off from treatment before beginning six months of heavy chemotherapy. He says the immunocompromised state he’ll be in during chemo is a concern, but that he still plans on seeing the world.