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Living in the moment helps St. Petersburg artist Woo deal with brain cancer

By JEFF KLINKENBERG

Times Staff Writer

Here is what Woo wants. He wants to go fishing, catch something beautiful and primitive, snap a good photograph, drive to his gallery, stand before the easel, study the photo, paint something nice. Woo wants to paint the tarpon, capture the utter wildness, the silver-dollar scales, the great maw of a jaw and the enormous eye that sees everything vital in its universe.

Woo, 42, is west Florida's irrepressible fish man. Painting fish fills him with joy. Painting fish focuses his mind on the exciting present rather than the depressing past and a worrisome future.

Woo had brain cancer. When he gazes in the mirror he sees the place where a surgeon sawed open his skull a while back. She got most of the cancer, but not every bit. Woo hasn't painted a self-portrait. Instead he paints tarpon, grouper and ravenous yellowfin tuna blasting gape-jawed through a school of minnows.

Woo wonders about those minnows because "everything in the sea is trying to eat them." Woo wonders if they spend their few weeks of existence obsessing about mortality. He'd like to think they hatch, eat, grow, reproduce, swim joyfully. He wants to think they live in the moment until the very end.

Humans are more complicated. At his gallery at 689 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg, Woo wants to paint Atlantic sailfish and coral grouper today, tomorrow and as long as the menacing growth in his brain will allow. With good luck, he could have a half-century of painting snook and spotted sea trout ahead of him. With bad luck, less.

Sometimes he thinks about his dad, who died of cancer at 50, and says, "Life is short. You got to take advantage of it when it's here."

• • •

His given name is Bill Correira. In west Florida almost nobody, except maybe his mother, calls him Bill or uses his last name. He is always "Woo" as in "What's up, Woo?" The answer, of course, is painting a fish, perhaps a big-eye toro or a mahimahi. Or talking to pals or drinking a beer, thinking about the next tattoo, courting a new girlfriend, wondering about his own mortality.

To "woo" is to seduce, to lure, to reel in people who might like to buy a painting of a fish, perhaps a nice big red. "But that's not how I became Woo," he tells only close friends.

He became Woo one evening years ago while enjoying an adult beverage at an outdoor tavern. He heard the squealing of brakes followed by a car's insistent honking. Turning, he saw an uninhibited female friend waving from the passenger's seat. She yelled "Wooooooo!" as she bared her breasts.

Picasso. Dalí. Woo.

His art probably will never be part of the Louvre in Paris or the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. His work may never hang in the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg. He is cool with that. Woo is a self-taught regionalist who paints what he knows. In a place where people like to catch fish, look at fish and eat fish, he has a following. He makes a living. He has paintings in the city's history museum, in seafood restaurants, in hotel lobbies, in magazines, in private homes. In August, somebody bought a painting of a koi, an Asian carp, at a Tampa auction for $4,000.

He calls his St. Petersburg business Gallery Woo. It serves as a gathering place for all manner of downtown's denizens, from tattooed skaters to purple-haired femme fatales to grayish gentlemen who wear coats and ties in September's awful swelter.

Gallery visitors sometimes include grizzled anglers who have dropped in to share photographs of their latest trophies, perhaps a blue-lightning wahoo or a blackfin tuna. A homeless guy pokes his head in the doorway and says, "I like your fish, Woo."

"Thanks, dude.''

An elementary schoolteacher asks if Woo will talk to her class. The owner of a dive shop wants to know if Woo will contribute a painting as a tournament prize. "If you ever want lessons," Bill Hardman, who owns Aquatic Obsessions Dive Shop, tells Woo, "let me know."

"Awesome."

If his brain stays healthy, he'd love to take a photograph one day of a goliath grouper at close range. They weigh 700 pounds, man.

The world of Woo is peopled by straights and gays, blacks and Hispanics, the occasional redneck, the occasional Ringling College of Art and Design sophomore, Rastafarians with dreadlocks and headbangers beered up from the Emerald Bar down the street. His most regular visitor is a fellow artist who goes by Rooster.

"Let's go to Barnes & Noble's tonight," says Rooster, who sometimes answers to Marc Levasseur and is known for his colorful barnyard creations. "We'll study some art books."

"Awesome!"

Sometimes fish-art collector Goliath Davis III, the city's former deputy mayor, ambles in to ask, "What's up, Woo?" So does Charley Morgan, the crusty 82-year-old founder of Morgan Yachts. "I'm a fan of Woo's paintings," Morgan says. "But it's more than that. It's his personality, his hustle and his refusal to be defeated by the things that have happened to him. I really admire him."

Part Buddha and part Munchkin, Woo stands 5 feet 4 and weighs a few six packs more than 200 pounds. He favors paint-spattered shorts and smocks. His hair is a wonder, short on the sides but cresting to a small wave in the middle. A night owl, he has dark rings under his eyes from bad sleep. He has a hipster's goatee. Large gold hoops dangle from his ears while the tattoos of jellyfish, octopi and koi on his thick arms swim into view as he paints.

A Friday.

Now he is standing before a blank canvas, which is scary but in a different way from how brain cancer is scary. "Fish are living art,'' Woo says. Every fish is different. Every one serves a natural purpose. Fish are utterly alive. Woo wants to do them justice with his art.

He studies his model, a small photograph of something colorful given him by an angler as inspiration. He dips the brush. Starts. Stops. Steps back, cocks his head, stares down the intimidating blank canvas, unafraid.

He finally starts painting a speckled peacock bass, an Amazon River species introduced to South Florida in 1984. A peacock bass features every hue in the Crayola box, but they're mostly gold and green with a dab of blue. They have black spots and black bars and black speckles and striking black eyes that show no mercy to minnows or grass shrimp.

"I've got an appointment for an MRI soon," Woo tells a friend watching him paint. "I try to remain positive, but it's hard not be nervous. You know what I mean?''

• • •

He is genetically programmed to paint fish, barracuda or orange grouper, perhaps, or red snapper and Spanish hogfish.

A second-generation American, he counts among his relatives commercial fishermen from Portugal and the Azores. He was born in the commercial fishing town of New Bedford, Mass., once America's whaling capital. His dad, William Correira Jr., was a graphics designer for Goodyear Rubber Products but was better known for his paintings of whales and his engravings on sperm whale teeth of 19th century whaling ships. Bill's mother, Gale, was named in honor of a storm that drowned 500 New Englanders and destroyed a fishing fleet in 1938.

The Correiras moved to Florida when Bill was 7. As a boy, he joyfully caught sheepshead on a hook baited with a fiddler crab and blue crabs using chicken necks. While snorkeling, he saw homely toadfish feeding along the oyster beds and pretty, striped sergeant majors cruising through the turtle grass shallows. Exploring Tampa Bay on a little unseaworthy boat made from Styrofoam, he caught Southern puffers and gafftopsail catfish.

"He was always a wild little kid," his mother tells people. "When he was really small I had to put him on a leash to keep him from going off."

At St. Petersburg's Northeast High he preferred his skateboard to what his teachers had scrawled on the chalkboard. His other hobbies were girls and beer. Sometimes he tells the story about the time he attended the prom in a Mercedes loaned to him by his girlfriend's dad. During the evening, Bill loaded the car with friends and sped over a hill, landing hard enough to decapitate the oil pan. Without lubrication the engine seized, ruined. "Call your dad,'' he told his date. "I'm gone." He vanished into the dark, walking 5 miles home in his rented tux. End of date. End of relationship.

Bill clashed nightly with his own dad, a retired Army veteran who had become a Baptist and wanted to see not only maturity but some A's on his son's report card.

"If you're going fishin', '' his dad sometimes barked at him in his clam-chowder accent, "why isn't there a fishin' rod in the cah?"

They became close only a dozen years ago. That happened when dad came home after the doctor's appointment at which he had been diagnosed with deadly pancreatic cancer.

"I only got about six months," the father told the son. "So let's get to know each other."

At the time, Bill had only just started dabbling in art. A community college dropout, he earned a paycheck by tending bar, scraping boat bottoms and graphic design.

"You got some talent," his dad told him. "To learn how to paint you gotta paint."

Bill painted naked girls.

"Now try and sell 'em," dad said.

He drove to a gallery where Leslie Curran, now a City Council member, stood behind the counter. "Not bad," she told him. "But lots of artists paint nudes. What else do you have?"

He did paintings of gag grouper. Pompano paintings. "People around here really like fish," Curran said. "Give me some fish."

They sold like cod cakes.

One night, his dad waved his boy over. "Out of respect for your mother," he said, "take me outside for a walk because I'm going to smoke."

As Bill pushed the wheelchair he realized his dad's desire for a smoke was not the reason for their walk.

"Stop," his father said and pointed at the western sky.

"See that crescent moon? And the little star right next to it?"

Bill saw the heavenly objects.

"When I'm gone, and you see that moon and that star, I want you to know I'm up there watchin' ya."

The son fought back the tears.

"So, Billy Bad Boy," his father said, "you cryin' back there?"

His dad died at home on Nov. 29, 2000.

Woo began painting his fish furiously. Curran's new gallery on Central Avenue, Interior Motives, took on the appearance of an aquarium.

• • •

Most artists don't starve, but neither do they have a stockbroker. They drive old cars and go without health insurance. Woo managed. He bought a condo and opened a little studio but kept his bartending job.

Thanksgiving 2007.

That night he was tending bar at a joint that's gone now, a neighborhood kind of place where everybody knew everybody. As he poured wine and tapped the beer he felt dizzy. Maybe he'd eaten too much turkey.

The chair flipped when he passed out.

He awoke 48 days later at Bayfront Medical Center, tied to a hospital bed so he couldn't rip the tubes from in his arms, nose, throat, penis. A nurse gently removed the tape from his eyes.

He somehow focused on the television near the ceiling. The Wizard of Oz was on. Dorothy's house had just fallen on the wicked witch. The movie tripped from black and white to color. He watched Dorothy on the yellow brick road. In Munchkinland, Woo was alive.

"You have a tumor on your brain," a doctor told him. "You had a seizure."

The tumor had to wait. First, he learned how to talk, walk, eat and go to the bathroom again. Ten days later, he and his mother celebrated his homecoming with steaks. Fear was their dessert.

First, Woo had no insurance. Medicaid was going to take care of most of his expenses, but not all. Second, something that could kill him was growing in his brain.

The biopsy revealed malignant cells. His oncologist prescribed chemotherapy in pill form. The pill made him sick to his stomach. Woo had bills to pay, so he painted every day, maybe a rock hind grouper or a bonefish, sometimes at home, sometimes in his studio, but often on the street in front of restaurants where he could attract a crowd and woo potential customers.

His favorite sidewalk fronted 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House in downtown St. Petersburg. He might paint a king mackerel, an Atlantic bonito or a snowy grouper. Then he'd bolt for the restaurant's restroom and throw up. After brushing his teeth, he'd return to the sidewalk and maybe his painting of a queen triggerfish.

Over the next two years, the tumor grew smaller.

Then it stopped shrinking.

As it grew back, Woo felt as fragile as a mullet in the path of a hungry amberjack.

At Moffitt Cancer Center, Dr. Surbhi Jain looked at his latest MRI scan, recommended surgery and explained the risks. He might lose his sense of smell. He might not be able taste food.

He might not be able to paint.

The frontal lobe controls the movement of fine muscles.

So in order to live he might lose the one thing he loved the most.

Dr. Jain removed a tumor about the size of a slice of cheesecake.

Woo retained his ability to smell — out of one nostril, anyway. He lost much of his sense of taste.

He could still paint.

That mattered to him more than the taste of smoked Spanish mackerel.

• • •

He painted great hammerhead sharks, snapper, even a few green sea turtles. He socialized, got tattooed, fell in love and out of love and in love again. He ate rib-eyes at Outback and never turned down a beer. His friend, council member Curran, warned him, "Slow down. Rest. Take a day off every once in a while.''

"I'm bored when I take a day off,'' he protested. "I love to paint. Painting isn't work to me.''

Last June 15, he met a friend at a bar. She wanted to tell him the good news: She and her significant other were expecting their first baby. "Now you can't drink,'' Woo told her as he gulped the first of six Jagermeisters, a potent liqueur noted for its pungent flavor. He chased down his favorite beverage with six highly caffeinated Red Bulls, which sped the booze through his system.

"Now you can't drink,'' Woo told his friend.

"You already said that,'' she pointed out.

"Now you can't drink,'' Woo said minutes later.

"What's wrong with you, Bill?'' she asked.

"I think I blacked out.''

• • •

On a recent Wednesday, Woo and his mother woke early. He ate Raisin Bran; she was too nervous for anything but coffee, which, of course, made her more nervous. Bill dressed in shorts and a baggy fisherman's shirt and tried to stay calm.

"Let me iron your shirt,'' his mother said. "It's so wrinkled.''

"I'm having an MRI, Mom,'' Woo said. "Nobody cares about my shirt.''

The appointment at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. In the waiting room, Woo filled out forms with tired eyes. He hadn't slept. He hoped his dad was up there in the stars, looking down.

A nurse checked his blood pressure. Off the charts.

"I guess I'm nervous.''

The nurse took him back, and a technician helped him into the magnetic resonance imaging unit. "Butter me up'' is Woo's standard joke when he squeezes his goliath grouper figure into a space meant for a needlefish kind of torso. He took a deep breath when the technician rolled him into the machine that was going to take pictures of his brain and determine his future.

Woo's brain appeared on a TV monitor in another room. Front and backward, upside down and right side up — for 45 minutes the MRI hummed and thumped and took photographs at every angle. On the other side of the smoked glass Woo lay still as death.

The technician rolled him out of the machine.

Woo wanted to ask, "Did you see anything?'' but he didn't. She wouldn't have told him anyway. The doctor would.

That happened half an hour later in a small consulting room, where Woo sat anxiously waiting with his mother. Suddenly Dr. Edward Pan strolled in carrying photographs.

"Good news,'' he said. "The tumor hasn't grown at all. In fact, I'm going to wean you off the antiseizure medicine.''

So why had Woo suffered the blackout? Probably all those Jagermeisters and the Red Bulls and his high-octane life. Woo vowed to slow down. Then he typed a message on Facebook about his news. Okay at least for now. No woe for Woo.

Hours later he showed up on a downtown sidewalk with his easel and another blank canvas. He set everything up in front of a bar known as Sake Bomb.

A crescent moon hung over the western horizon. He dipped his brush in the paint and stepped back. Then he started painting. A tuna, yellow and blue with those black, expressionless eyes, slowly came to life.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

Photos by MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times

St. Petersburg artist Bill Correira, known as Woo, paints acrylic works of fish and other marine life. A surgeon told Woo that he might not paint again.

Imaging technician Neta Swanson helps Woo get on the table Aug. 31 for MRI scan of his brain at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

Woo painted through nausea-inducing chemotherapy, which shrank the tumor at first. When it grew back, he had surgery to remove it. Woo painted this barracuda the day he got home after the operation.

His surgeon told Woo that removing a brain tumor could have drastic implications on his life, including losing his sense of smell and taste. Worse, it could take away his painting.

On the Web

To see video of Bill Woo, please click on video.tampabay.com.

ON THE WEB

To see video of Bill Woo, please click on video.tampabay.com.

Living in the moment helps St. Petersburg artist Woo deal with brain cancer 09/09/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 4:22pm]

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