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Brushes with death

Sydney Morning Herald- Spectrum 31 May 2014

Rick Feneley

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Brushes with death

Downhill skier, sprint cyclist, near-death veteran, serial hospitalcase. Rick Feneley follows Sophie cape's blood-curdling ride from extreme athlete to extreme artist.

It is a pity this story cannot be written in blood and bone, two of the mediums preferred by its subject. In the loft of the sprawling shed behind her childhood home, Sophie Cape opens a bar fridge. She takes out a vial of blood. ''My blood,'' she explains. She walks to the wall opposite and points out some pleasing ochre smudges amid a melody of muted colours that feature in two of her paintings - large abstract works that evoke, at first glance, the Australian landscape. They are, more accurately, ''psychological self-portraits'' of the artist as a broken athlete, as an incurable adrenalin junkie, as an eternal risk-taker in a sublime battle with nature (in which nature usually wins). ''See,'' Cape says. ''Blood gives you this lovely rusty colour.''

There is still more of her blood on a large expressionist portrait, Master and Commander, stored behind this wall. It was the people's choice in the 2011 Portia Geach prize and its subject is Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. "I was going to use pig's blood until I found out he was a vegetarian," Cape says. "So I had to use my own. Nobody else would know the difference, but I know and that's what matters.'' The portrait also contains whale fat provided by Watson.

If DNA tests were conducted on Cape's canvases and works on paper, they would reveal much more of the stuff of life and death: the paws of road-kill kangaroos; eagles' feathers; the crushed bones of drought-ravaged sheep and cattle, whose skulls fill the shelves that skirt this studio; soil and detritus from several continents; ancient human skeletal remains from the catacombs of Paris, where Cape bunked down with cave-dwelling punks; and perhaps microscopic traces of an Austrian avalanche that left a Dutch prince in a terminal coma and buried Cape alive along with the four canvases she had been painting.
Signature work: Cape with the canvas she had signed by sherpas and trekkers on her Everest trek.


When the elder statesman of Australian art, John Olsen, saw Cape's work for the first time, he said: ''Now there's somebody who knows how to go, 'Take that, you c...!' '' Olsen was channelling the action painter Jackson Pollock, who would berate his canvases in this fashion while hurling paint at them. It was late 2010 when Olsen, as sponsor and judge of the figure drawing prize at the National Art School in Sydney's Darlinghurst, discovered Cape's ''electric passion'' and gave her the award.

''It was her emphatic style, zest and fearlessness,'' recalls 86-year-old Olsen. ''It was outstanding and there was a sense of maturity that one doesn't expect. I remember how confused I was at that stage.''

Cape is 38. Her art career started late, and only because her life as an extreme athlete ended abruptly and brutally. She had been an international downhill skier who competed with such ferocious fatalism that ''I would either win or crash''.
A monkey skull - one of the artefacts Cape collects to use in her work.

She crashed often, at speeds approaching 140km/h. ''I spent half my life in hospital or on crutches. All up, I broke 57 bones. I had four knee reconstructions, a near-amputation, eight broken noses, multiple concussions.'' She kept returning to push her body to its limits until she conceded, after a near-fatal crash at the World University Winter Games in Slovakia in 2000, that it could take no more.

Except that it could. A year later, Cape was rebuilt, a surgical marvel, as a sprint cyclist for the Australian Institute of Sport. She was a machine and on a fast track to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, until her body really could take no more. She crashed and burned. ''Everything I knew didn't exist any more,'' she says.

She sank into depression, refusing food and company and becoming, on her worst days, suicidal. All of which Cape now throws at her art: epic, cathartic, visceral works that are depth-charged with the emotion of a life lived on the edge.
Work by artist Sophie Cape in her studio in Mosman, Sydney.

She ventures alone into the outback, sleeps on a swag and ''cohabits'' for weeks at a time with her works in progress. ''If a piece is not working, I'll close my eyes and throw something at it, or I'll just leave it in the rain.''

She lays her big blank canvas or paper on the ground - whether here or in the European Alps at minus 30˚C, or wherever - and assails them with paint and charcoal, pigment and bitumen, red wine and BondCrete, manipulating them with brushes, a mop, tree branches or her own body, one elbow at play while the other keeps her suspended over the evolving picture.

Good Weekend arrives at her family home, a century-old former army hospital and halfway boarding house in Mosman, on Sydney's north shore, the day after Cape has returned from Nepal. On the floor of her studio is a filthy, tattered, two-metre canvas that she has just spent three weeks hauling behind her while trekking to Everest Base Camp with five other ''inspirational'' women, all recruited to accompany adventurer Annie Doyle before her planned ascent to the summit, the last of her seven peaks on seven continents.

Cape peers at the canvas. ''It's full of yak shit, dirt, ice. Local kids rode on it, me towing them uphill.'' She had rounded up the trekkers when they reached Base Camp and had them sign the canvas. She lifts it and points out the signatures, many of them written in Nepali script. These include the marks of Sherpas who had been preparing to forge ahead to the summit.

The day after a helicopter returned Cape to Kathmandu, she received news of Everest's worst-ever disaster - an avalanche had swept 16 Sherpas to their deaths. Her canvas contains some of their names. Friends have asked: ''What is it with you and natural disasters?'' Cape doesn't disagree, though not all of her disasters have been natural.

This shed was once the studio of ann Cape, Sophie's mother, who is also an accomplished artist. Mother and daughter have twice been finalists together in the Portia Geach, one of Ann's portraits being of Sophie as she has too often beheld her: on crutches. Ann Cape is also a graduate of the National Art School, as was her mother, Gwenna, who went on to paint window displays for Gowings stores and risqué female nude centrefolds for the long-defunct Man magazine.

''She was very like Sophie - a big risk taker,'' says Ann. For her 90th birthday, Gwenna jumped out of a plane. Sophie accompanied her grandmother on two of her three subsequent birthday parachute jumps before her death, at 96, in December 2013.

While Cape prefers to work in the studio from 9pm till dawn - putting the finishing touches to works created in the landscape - it also allows her to help with the care of her father, Bill, who has dementia. A former fighter pilot and senior Qantas captain, he was a strong athlete and powerful influence on his daughter. His inspirational sayings include: "Pain is only weakness leaving the body" and "Second place is the first loser".

Cape always had an extraordinary pain threshold. In a scrap, she was a match for her three brothers. She was awarded a bravery medal when, aged about seven, she endured a night-long blizzard with her father after they skied off-track at Thredbo. She was expelled from Brownies for putting dog poo in the handbag of Brown Owl, the girls' leader. (Young Sophie was indignant about doing needlecraft and cooking while the boy scouts were tying knots and shooting.)

''We tried to put her in dresses and teach her ballet,'' says Ann, ''but that was a bit of disaster. They all laugh at photos of her now in her little pink tutu.''

Cape competed at national level in hockey, surf-lifesaving, cricket, rugby and soccer. ''I was a painfully shy kid, so I think it was an outlet for me," she says. At SCECGS Redlands she also excelled at art, maths and science, although when she was invited recently to be an inspirational speaker at the school, she told the students: ''We did a career assessment test and mine said I should be a carpet layer or panel beater.''

Cape considered becoming a fighter pilot but studied architecture for two years, then dropped out at 20 to travel to Canada and train as a ski instructor. Within two months at Whistler, the Blackcomb Race Club noticed her. She spent the next six years working back-to-back winters as an instructor at Whistler and Thredbo to pay for her new life as a downhill racer.

She squeezed in a bachelor of design in visual communication at the University of Technology, Sydney (valedictorian, first-class honours and awarded a Full Blue for skiing). She also worked: cleaning public toilets, stacking shelves at Woolworths and planting saplings in Alaska for 5¢ a tree.

''They'd drop me off in a helicopter and leave me there, alone, for 12 hours. They gave you little explosives to scare off the bears, and mace, which only irritated them more. I spent half my time climbing precarious piles of felled timber to escape the bears.'' It was safer than downhill racing.

We had this saying,'' says Cape. ''if you're not crashing, you're not trying hard enough.'' She tried very hard. She remembers girls at the starting corral crying with fear as they confronted terrifyingly steep ''solid blue sheets of ice''. But it was during early-morning training in 1997 at Blue Cow resort in NSW that Cape had the first of her sickening falls.

With her skis ''drilled on'', she cartwheeled. Cape peels back denim to reveal an impressive scar. ''I snapped my leg off at the top of my ski boot," she says. "Below my knee, my Lycra suit became nothing but fabric and shredded skin. Then, off to the side, was my foot in the boot, still attached to the ski.''

Doctors at first decided to amputate, then warned Cape she would be dragging a ''hanging foot'' for life. ''It took about a year before I could walk again. I had a big metal plate with huge screws all through it. I had to have it removed so I could get my ski boot on.''

She returned to competitive racing, but too soon. Back in Whistler, she blew out both knees and flew home for her first reconstructive surgery. Again she returned to racing. A succession of breaks and fractures followed. Slovakia ended it. She broke multiple bones.

''And the winch in the helicopter didn't work," she says. "It was like something out of The Simpsons. I was hanging from the helicopter in this bucket, hitting all the tree tops because they couldn't winch me high enough. Then they put me in the back of an open ute, and they drove like maniacs, so I was sliding around in the back with a rusty shovel as my only companion. I passed out and when I came to there must have been eight doctors, all in white coats and on the floor - so surreal - arguing over which X-ray fitted to which, because their X-ray machine was so small and I'd broken so many bones they had to take about 60 pictures and they couldn't work out how to put them all back together again.''

Critically, her knees were beyond repair. Cape can laugh now, but it was bleak then, when she was only in her mid-20s. Her skiing career was over. But in 2002, her salvation came. The Australian Institute of Sport had launched a talent identification program to address a looming shortage of female track sprint cyclists for the 2008 Olympics.

''I didn't know what track cycling was," Cape says. She had never seen a velodrome, which was perfect as the AIS wanted elite athletes with no cycling experience and therefore ''no bad habits''.

''They tested thousands of women and selected 20 of us," Cape says. Within six weeks, the newcomers competed in the national titles and were impressive. But from here they had to prove themselves among the seasoned cyclists.

Cape held a day job at SBS, but she woke daily at 4am to train and was back on the bike until midnight. Then she moved to Perth, where she worked as an art director on a glossy magazine and where her long relationship with an SAS officer ended.

Three years later, Cape was the last of the 20 still standing, though she suffered excruciating leg pain. With her eyes wide open, Cape agreed to experimental surgery.

"They cut both my thighs open and removed the fascia - the muscle sheath. It meant there was nothing to stop the muscles from growing. Within weeks, my legs were like chicken drumsticks. And I got faster."

But the pain got worse. Perhaps not enough blood was getting to those muscles. "So they cut me open again and put patch grafts into my femoral arteries to make them wider and to create a direct line from my heart to my legs.''

Cape became faster but the pain intensified, to the point she lost motor control. She fell from her bike in the 500-metre time trial at the Western Australian State Track Championships in 2006 and slid across the line - to win.

"Mounting the podium with half my flesh missing was not my finest moment," she says.

Cape kept pushing beyond her pain barrier until her brain and muscles shut down. She spent months at the AIS in Canberra, where she slept in float tanks and learnt to walk again. But her Olympic dream, along with her sporting life, was finished. One theory - never confirmed, she says - was muscle meltdown caused by all the blood, toxins and lactic acid pumped through oversized arteries into oversized muscles.

"I can never do serious exercise again," she says. "I can't run up stairs without collapsing. The moment my body senses lactic acid, I lose motor control and pass out."

But she has just trekked to Everest Base Camp?

''Yes, though I've returned with cerebral and pulmonary oedema.''

And yet Cape refuses to look backwards. She blames nobody and has resisted ambulance-chasing lawyers who wanted her to sue. ''I wouldn't dream of it. If I had my time again, I'd do exactly the same thing. I don't regret any of it.''

She can say this now, but when her final hopes of becoming an elite athlete were dashed in 2006, she once more sank into depression. At her mother's urging, she joined the National Art School. She thought she would last six months but this move has been her salvation. She thrived. Four years later she was accepting John Olsen's award. One of her winning pictures was a life-size charcoal drawing of the Slovakia crash.

The video of the crash showed it lasted only seconds, but her memory of it was of a slow-motion torture - ''every tear, every snap, every twist, like it was yesterday," she says. "As you're falling, you can hear the bones breaking. There's no mistaking that sound. It's like a gunshot.'' So she drew it as an animation, filming each frame. She rubbed out each finished life-size frame so she could draw the next on the same paper, until she arrived at the final tangle of limbs that took the prize.

John Olsen's son, Tim, was in the audience. He had been lured to inspect Cape's work by her teacher, Bill Wright. ''When John got up and said, 'My prize goes to Sophie Cape', I nearly collapsed on the floor because we had arrived serendipitously at the same artist,'' says the younger Olsen. Father and son were struck by the yin and yang in her work: the macho zeal of the athlete tempered by a feminine touch.

Tim Olsen began representing Cape through his Olsen Irwin gallery. ''She is like a Zen master. She is able to make a mark without hitting a false note; to basically channel the energies of nature and play out on a surface the things that don't look like they've been made by a man or woman. They are marks of nature that defy human touch.''

Cape's works, Tim Olsen says, are about ''living close to the edge and coming back from the brink of disaster. She tells me that, when she works, the painting fails several times and she's constantly trying to rescue it. But in the end the mistakes are the great successes ... it turns out to be this magnificent symphony. Her works are like a Tchaikovsky intro, or Wagner, building up this storm of emotion. She deals with that fine line between passion and tragedy, like a Greek play or Shakespearean sonnet. It is to do with the peril of beauty; the irony of a terrible beauty.''

The big themes of life and death have followed Cape on a series of odysseys since. During an artist's residency in the Austrian Alps in 2012, she was working on four large canvasses laid out in the snow when she heard ''a rush of air''. Next thing she was ''swimming'' in an avalanche. With survival skills learned from skiing, she dug herself out. It took another two weeks to recover the buried paintings. The Dutch royal Prince Johan Friso, skiing half a kilometre away, never recovered from a coma he fell into after being buried in the same avalanche and died last August.

After an excursion last year to China to teach art to disadvantaged children, Cape decided to go to the remote Shaolin temple and convince its monks to teach her kung fu for a month. With no local language, she could not explain the risk she faced from excessive exercise and often lost her temper. As punishment, she had to perform 200 push-ups on her knuckles. On her return, while letting down her hair with friends in NSW's Blue Mountains, Cape dived from a roof into a tree. It was a party trick.

''I broke my spine. I was having a break from painting, which isn't a good idea. Painting is my shrink.''

Her back recovered in time for her Nepal trek in April, when once again she pushed her pain threshold by lugging that canvas, at one point a sodden, frozen dead weight from a river crossing. Cape had planned to donate the proceeds of the yet-to-be-completed work to Sunnyfield Disability Services, where adventurer Annie Doyle is the chief financial officer.

On the day Cape collected the signatures on her canvas at Base Camp, Doyle and Cape decided the money should be split between Sunnyfield and the families of Sherpas. That decision became more pressing and poignant with the news of the deaths of the 16 Sherpas who died in an avalanche. In her studio, Cape lifts a yak's foot that she has brought home to incorporate into the work. Still missing is a small section of the canvas she had torn off and given to guides to take to the summit. Cape's plan had been to sew it back on with yak's hair. She doesn't know what has become it.

Despite her bodily disasters, Cape regards herself as extremely lucky. ''I don't want there ever to be any doubt about something I didn't do, didn't try. I don't want to ever wonder what could have been," she says. ''I often think - what is the word for it - that I can't die.'' Immortal? ''Or indestructible. I sort of honestly think if I was hit by a car, I'd walk away and the car would come off second best.''

She gets the same exhilaration from her extreme art as she did from extreme sport. ''As long as I keep working. If I don't, I start diving off rooftops.''

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