Cancer survivor and artist Sofia Cole is living her passion today, writes Peggy Loh
BEHIND her sweet smile and twinkling eyes, artist Sofia Cole is a fighter. Only 15 years ago, the 51-year-old English woman who now lives in Johor Baru, was told that she had only three days to live and was advised to bid goodbye to her family.
She was devastated when told she had non-Hodgkin lymphoma because her children, Stefan, Sasha and Sebastian, were only 6, 4 and 18 months old respectively. As she grappled with breaking the news to her family, her first thought was “I can’t die — I have so much to do!”
But she has gone on to defy all odds and has even held her first art exhibition, My Passion For Portraits, at the recent 9th Johor Baru Arts Festival. Her forte is portrait painting and creating wearable art, which she calls “danglies”, featuring characters from English classics.
The vintage-looking danglies are designed in themes like Beatrix Potter, Mary Poppins, Alice in Wonderland and Pride and Prejudice. “It’s someone’s childhood caught in bits of glass,” says Sofia of the tiny paintings of the characters fitted into frames and linked into danglies.
One of these truly unique creations is the pretty Mary Poppins dangly that even has a tiny teaspoon framed with several crystals for a 3-D effect portrayal of “a spoonful of sugar” that helps the medicine go down!
Sofia is inspired by the people she meets and if a person catches her attention, she will not hesitate to approach him or her to ask if she can draw a portrait. One of her favourites, a black-and-white pen illustration, is that of a cheeky 5-year-old boy she met in a cafe close to her apartment. Sofia also paints portraits in mixed media and in oil paints besides painting portraits from photos.
Just before Hari Raya, Sofia’s cleaner approached her with a photo of her mother and mother-in-law and asked Sofia to paint a portrait of them so that she could present it to them as a festive gift.
Sofia’s B-cell lymphoma was the size of a grapefruit and inoperable as it was wrapped around her heart. She underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments and fought the battle with tenacity as the drugs ravaged her. Her family was traumatised by the ordeal. “My life is defined as ‘Before cancer’ and ‘After cancer’,” says Sofia, who went into remission for about five years before she had convulsions and collapsed.
For her own safety, Sofia, who once worked in London and lived in Devon, England, had to give up her driving licence. One day when she collapsed in the street, the doctor suspected that she had a late onset of epilepsy. In hospital, the medication made her heart race and the doctor discovered that her heart was failing. Since being fitted with a pacemaker, Sofia continues to have regular health checks and now is able to enjoy a better quality of life.
It was a long road to recovery after her illness because she could not draw fine pen illustrations due to numbness in her fingers. She struggled on with sheer determination and it was a year later that she was satisfied with her drawings. The completion of each portrait was a sweet achievement for her.
“If I’m not reading, I’m drawing,” she says as she shows off her collection of classics, mainly by Jane Austen as well as prequels and sequels to Pride And Prejudice. Being dyslexic, she desperately wanted to read but could not until she was 11. But once she started reading, she could not put the books down and is an avid reviewer of Jane Austen classics.
When her family lived in Dartmoor, Devon, Sofia was involved with the Chagford Filmmaking Group, a non-profit volunteer organisation dedicated to preserving the heritage of English fairytales in films. Her children are her inspiration and while they joined the cast to act in various films on folklore, she focused on helping to design and make costumes and dress up mythical characters like fairies, water nymphs, flowers and giants. These colourful characters were later immortalised in her paintings designed in portraits crowned by a halo filled with interesting icons, often in intricate decoupage.
Devon is one of the wettest parts of England and Sofia had to depend on all sorts of medication to prevent coughs and colds. As a cancer survivor, she was ready for a radical change, so after a family meeting, it was decided that the time was ripe to go on a round-the-world trip. After they left, Sofia knew she may not see Venice — her favourite place — again so she took her daughter there for a visit.
In November 2008, armed with one suitcase each, Sofia, her husband and children headed for their first stop, Pattaya, Thailand, to join Stefan who was taking a diving course there. But with demonstrations going on in Bangkok, the airports were closed. So they landed in Singapore and had an adventure travelling by coach via Johor to Penang, en route to Hat Yai and finally arrived in Pattaya for Christmas.
They took a slow return trip through the peninsula with stops in Pangkor, Malacca, Tioman, Kuala Lumpur and Johor to Singapore before leaving for Australia. After three months in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane as well as diving in the Great Barrier Reef, the family journeyed on to New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
While her children enjoyed all the extreme sports in New Zealand, the cooler temperature and dampness affected Sofia, making her feel unwell. After celebrating Sasha’s 18th birthday in Las Vegas, the family had to make some decisions as they were on the final leg of their trip.
Sofia told the family: “I don’t want to go back to England. Let’s go back to Malaysia.”
Her husband was expecting her to say, Malacca, but she decided on Johor because she felt Johor Baru had the best of everything. It is close to Singapore and they can enjoy visiting the islands off Mersing for diving and snorkelling. “I feel better than I have in years,” says the affable Sofia, surrounded by her paintings in her sixth floor apartment that commands a panoramic view of the Johor Straits.