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Cancer fighter unleashes a torrent of provocative new art

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After two surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation proved ineffective, Brooklyn artist Cordula Volkening tried NovoCure, an experimental treatment that attacks her brain tumor with electrical currents.

The bi-weekly treatments leave her depleted, able to fully function only for short periods of time. The right side of her body is often paralyzed, speaking is difficult, and she has seizures.

But while the tumor – a stage 4 glioblastoma multiforme, same as Senator Ted Kennedy’s – has deprived her of many physical abilities, it has unleashed her creativity in full force: Since her diagnosis last September, the 51-year-old Park Slope artist has been more productive than ever.

In December, Volkening – a native of Germany – had 40 paintings featured at a show at the Brooklyn Artists Gym (168 7th Street).

Next up is a June 14 through June 19 show at BAG, which will feature 20 paintings along with six painted fiberglass light objects.

Dubbed “In Meinem Wilden Herzen,” the show is named after a Rainer Maria Rilke poem whose title translates to “In my wildest/bravest heart.”

“Cancer forces me to not compromise myself, and it relates to the title of that poem because life without fear is life without a brave heart,” Volkening said during an interview conducted over instant messenger.

Before her diagnosis, Volkening spent 15 years supervising interior renovation projects in Park Slope and other parts of Brooklyn.

Her work, along with the responsibilities of raising two children, put a crimp on her visual art career. Despite owning a Masters Degree from the School of Art and Design in Kiel, Germany, Volkening said she completed only 10 paintings during this period.

Forced to quit her job after her diagnosis, she threw herself headlong into art.

“Since the cancer diagnosis, I feel that I must come to the main purpose of my life, which is to be an artist,” she said.

“Creativity has not increased, but before [the diagnosis], creativity was always a bother because I didn’t have time to devote myself to a painting for as long as it took. The ability to wipe out worrying about everyday responsibilities is greater now.”

Volkening described her work as reminiscent of Rothko and Basquiat, with an element of Miro and Kandinsky.

“She’s quite extraordinary. She’s going toward abstraction in a really fascinating way,” praised Peter Wallace, director and founder of BAG.

“Her work isn’t emotional because of [her cancer], it’s emotional because of where she lives as artist.”

Volkening allowed that her diagnosis has informed her work, but only to a point.

“Brain cancer is similar to glasses – it’s just one aspect of who I am. I’m not forgetting it but I’m also not emphasizing it,” she said.

Another aspect of Volkening’s identity is her adoptive home. She came to Brooklyn in 1985 and was immediately attracted to its mix of cultures and personalities.

“In Germany growing up I was considered ‘different.’ It was one of those teenage things. I didn’t fit in for some reason but when I came to Brooklyn, I always had friends and fit in,” she said.

After her first round of chemotherapy and radiation, Volkening’s tumor briefly went away last December. But by March, it was back.

After the standard treatment proved ineffective, Volkening became one of the approximately 120 people in the world to go on the experimental NovoCure trial.

As part of the treatment, she must tote a backpack-style battery pack that sends electrical impulses to small magnets on her skull.

In June, she will get an MRI to assess the treatment’s effectiveness and determine whether or not to continue.

“My life is a blessing, but life is full of challenges,” she said. “The cancer is one of those challenges.”


“Meinem Wilden Herzen,” by Cordula Volkening, will open at the Brooklyn Artists Gym (168 7th Street) June 14, from 4 to 8 p.m.

The show will run through June 19. Gallery hours are 11 to 6 Monday through Saturday and 1 to 6 on Sunday.

For more information, call 718-858-9069 or go to

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