Bill Correira's new studio at the Crislip Arcade is full of his fanciful fish depictions in oil and acrylic, from the kingfish outside the entrance to grouper, redfish and turtles inside. But it is the barracuda with menacing teeth within Gallery Woo on Central Avenue that represents the success of an artist, pursuing his passion in the face of devastating medical news.
"It's really exciting walking into a place and you see your gallery name above the door," he said as he sat on a stool surrounded by his canvases. "It's meant a lot."
It has meant even more to the 41-year-old because of what he has overcome. Correira collapsed on Thanksgiving 2007 and wound up in a coma for 49 days, suffering sepsis and renal failure along the way. Doctors offered his mother do-not-resuscitate papers — which she refused to sign.
He awakened to more bad news: St. Anthony's physicians found a nodule of cancer on his appendix during a body scan. They also found a glioma, or cancer, in his brain. He was transferred to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and began chemotherapy in 2008, enduring 18 months before surgeons recommended his right frontal lobe be removed.
It didn't take him long to decide. Just over two months ago, he had the surgery.
Since the right side of the brain is the creative side, doctors warned that there was a chance he would no longer be able to create art after the surgery.
"The artistic side is there, speech and smell and taste and it's close to the optic nerve so maybe sight," he said. "My mom was distraught and said 'Are you sure you want to do this?' Knowing you have brain cancer is scarier than knowing you can't paint a picture."
All the potential complications didn't occur and Correira — who has a photo on his cell phone of the missing part of his brain — was back two days later painting the barracuda that now graces one wall of his gallery. The only side effect: he can't smell out of his right nostril.
He recalled a conversation he had with a doctor who was amazed he had returned to paint so soon.
"There's no (major) deficits," he said. "She was like 'Wow, I guess you painting live at all those locations and through all your chemotherapy and treatments, you pretty much trained the left part of the brain to take over the right brain functions.' "
Throughout his ordeal Correira painted on the street in front of the now-closed Pacific Wave restaurant and on Beach Drive near the 400 Beach Seafood & Tap House, which was then under construction. Owner Steve Westphal noticed him and now displays several of his works, including his signature grouper, in the restaurant.
"His passion I find is really an inspiration," Westphal said. "He's a phenomenal inspiration. Because he didn't quit, I think it saved his life."
Others in the art community share Westphal's views. City Council Chairwoman Leslie Curran displayed his work in a gallery and was with him when he collapsed on Thanksgiving. She has been impressed with his full-time focus on his art.
"I think he has really grown throughout this ordeal," she said. "He's just a good guy and he'll continue to do well because of his attitude."
He still faces checkups and imaging tests every three months. As he pushes forward he said he tries to follow the advice of Moffit neuro-oncologist Dr. Edward Pan to "go live your life."
And he remembers the inspiration of his father, a New England scrimshaw artist who died a decade ago.
"My father encouraged me to do my own art," he said. "I know he's looking down at me and I'm pretty sure he's proud of what I'm doing."