Facing stage four cancer with a possibly metastasizing melanoma on his arm, the dying man is supposed to look back on his life and curse his omissions: his ceaseless devotion to work and all the creative ambitions that never materialized.
But instead of raging against misspent time, Normando Ismay remembers feeling an odd kind of contentment sweep over him as he began to contemplate his own death.
One thought brought him out of that dark void, the 52-year-old artist recalls. "I'm so glad I decided to make art my whole life and not wait until I retired."
Never mind that the uninsured Ismay had to fork over $13,000 -- a loan from an unnamed friend -- for the surgery last August that removed a malignant melanoma and left a scar the shape and size of a small mouse on his right arm. Or that he estimates his medical bills will rise to a staggering $20,000 by the time his treatment runs its course. Ismay has lived a happy, artistically satisfying life, and that's more than many could claim for themselves.
The good news today is that Ismay is cancer-free, though not debt-free. Dancer and friend Celeste Miller is sharing her Cabbagetown home with Ismay, helping him recover and navigate the labyrinthine health care system. And in her latest gesture of friendship, she has helped organize an Oct. 14-16 fundraiser to not only defray Ismay's medical costs but to help build a health care reserve for artists without health insurance to tap into should a devastating health care crisis like Ismay's arise.
Dressed all in black from his jeans to his beret, Ismay sits in Miller's cheerful yellow kitchen sipping mate, the dense, earthy tea of his native Argentina, and recalls his upbringing in the northwestern town of La Rioja.
"Art's for rich people only," Ismay laughingly recalls his mother advising. Like many reared in poverty, she hoped her son would follow a more traditional career path.
But Ismay could not ignore his life's calling. He traveled the countryside with his missionary father and saw both extreme poverty and the deep roots of community that brought people together with music and storytelling just as air-conditioned homes and TV drive them apart now. His father often called upon him to preach a little himself.
Decades later, when he first took the stage at an Atlanta workshop, Ismay mesmerized his audience with a charismatic storytelling ability that seemed to spring out of nowhere. He realized that his father had prepared him well for a life of mounting pulpits, though not the religious kind.
Ismay has since incorporated many of his formative experiences growing up poor but happy in Argentina into his new life in Atlanta. He left Argentina in 1974. And over the course of a 30-year art career Ismay has become one of the city's unsung creative heroes.
For Ismay, the Atlanta art scene was his graduate school. At alternative arts spaces like Nexus (now Atlanta Contemporary Art Center) and the Mattress Factory, he learned to create sculpture and installations from garbage, an abundant material in America which contrasts starkly with the scarcity of waste in Argentina.
In a 1981 show at the Mattress Factory, he noticed how all of the participating artists laid immediate claim to their little parcels of space like puppies marking their territories. In a typically tongue-in-cheek gesture, Ismay literally fenced off his space and served beer, creating a small, spontaneous community.
That early epiphany -- that art was a commodity to be traded for money -- led to a radical desire to make art differently. In 1994 Ismay debuted the very first Cafe Bizzoso in the long-beloved, now-defunct Atlanta Arts Festival. Bizzoso, MC'ed by Ismay's alter ego Papa Bizzoso, was a kind of collaborative, festival-style performance event, interweaving dance, storytelling and music in an effort to create a community -- at least for one enchanted night.
Cafe Bizzoso combined everything Ismay loved about Argentina: a celebration of the kind of unafraid, joyful individual expression that he saw crushed in the anxiety-producing American media culture.
Louise Shaw, former executive director of Nexus Contemporary Art Center, watched Ismay's progress from his earliest days in Atlanta. She calls him a trendsetter for the way he dealt with issues just beginning to circulate in the art world.
"I think that he was truly one of the first to take a multidisciplinary approach in this very holistic way that really has to do with how art can transform communities."
After purchasing his first house for $7,000 in Taco Town, the then-marginal neighborhood between Grant Park and Cabbagetown, Ismay brought community activism home when he debuted his 1994 Crack Attack show at his own "Little Beirut" backyard art space. Ismay spray-painted an enormous sign with an arrow pointing to the "crack house" on his block in an effort to drive the drug trade from his neighborhood.
Atlanta has changed enormously since Ismay first arrived here in the '70s. But the collaboration and the camaraderie remain. His friends are staging a Cafe Bizzoso-style benefit to celebrate a life truly worth living. Meanwhile, Ismay is not worried about his legacy.
Indicating the colorful paintings adorning the walls of Miller's kitchen, he says, "I made thousands of art pieces. My presence in this world is going to be here for a long time."
Evenings feature music, dance and spoken word performances by Seaberg Acrobatic Poetry, Andean musical group Vientos Del Pueblo, musician and spoken word artist Kodac Harrison and many others. Artist's market, children's events and workshops will be held during the day on Saturday.
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