Logging long hours as a housekeeper at the emergency department of the Halifax Infirmary in spring 2021, Maria Valverde noticed she was having trouble breathing.
The Halifax woman figured the cause might be COVID-19, or maybe it was the personal protective equipment she was wrapped in.
But it was terminal lung cancer.
“I should have died in the fall of 2021, for sure,” she said. “That’s how bad it was. I couldn’t even breathe. I mean, the chemo wasn’t working.”
But her fate changed when she qualified for Tagrisso, a drug that comes with a $13,000 monthly cost.
“It gave me an extra amount of time to be able to kind of sort everything out,” said Valverde.
“And so in that moment I realized, ‘Wait a minute, you know, I’m not ready to die yet. I’m ready to do what I was destined to do, which is to be an artist.'”
A former Nova Scotia College of Art and Design student, Valverde has always made art, but it was never a career.
Now on long-term disability, Valverde’s focus is art. Her exhibit Celestial Hunger opened Thursday at Zwicker’s Gallery in downtown Halifax.
The exhibit’s inspiration comes from searching the word pandemic while on break at work early on in the pandemic. The searches yielded results about The Black Death, the bubonic plague that killed up to an estimated 200 million people beginning in the mid-1300s.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s so uncanny,'” said Valverde. “In the medieval ages they had that and look what we’re dealing with now.”
The exhibit’s paintings reflect life in Halifax during the pandemic.
While places such as Point Pleasant Park, The Salvation Army on Gottingen Street and the Robie Street Esso are easy to identify in the paintings, the poverty in the city is also present, whether it be people living in tents or the rapid increase in homelessness.
The paintings also have phrases that conjure up images of the pandemic, including “Stay the blazes home,” “quarantine” and “CERB.”
In the painting The Plague, there’s a hospital housekeeper at work.
“Art is about responding to something that is happening,” said Fiona Valverde, Maria’s sister. “I think that’s very personal in many ways. And this is sort of her story and her journey.”
Fiona Valverde called her sister inspiring.
“It’s all how you decide to choose to see the world and to handle what you are dealt with,” said Fiona Valverde.
“It’s not like it’s been a bed of roses, make no mistake. But she’s really dug deep and she’s resilient, she is a strong human being and she has a fight for life.”
Some of the proceeds from the sale of the works in Celestial Hunger will go to Shelter Nova Scotia and an Art Gallery of Nova Scotia fund named after her father, artist Jose Antonio Valverde Alcalde.
After Celestial Hunger, Valverde’s next exhibit, Alter Egos, will open later this year.
She said her health is stable, but she gets tested every three months to see if the cancer has spread.
“Once it starts to spread, that’s it for me,” she said.
But for now, Valverde is focusing on the positives.
“I’ve always wanted to be an artist full time … but it wasn’t until I got my diagnosis that I realized, ‘Oh my gosh, what a blessing this is. Because now I can actually do it as much as I want,'” she said.