Drawing has been an important outlet for John Graff during the most difficult periods of his life, whether it was his father’s passing in the late 1980s or the deaths of an uncle and niece in recent years.
It’s been especially meaningful during his own ongoing battle against stage 4 prostate cancer.
With encouragement from his doctor, Graff has used art as a central part of his treatment and wellness program since being diagnosed in May 2017.
“I’m not a classically trained artist,” Graff said. “It’s just something I’ve done on my own as a hobby.”
His previous subjects were family members. But when the NHL season paused March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the avid hockey fan focused the tips of his pencils and markers on the Golden Knights.
Using a pointillism style, Graff created a series of drawings that depicted some of the Knights’ most prominent features, such as Marc-Andre Fleury’s smile and William Carrier’s square jaw.
More importantly, the 64-year-old Henderson resident found inspiration with each carefully placed dot during his fight against cancer.
“I enjoyed researching each player’s biography and found that doing portraits of each of these teammates gave me strength in their strength, as they have our entire Vegas community,” Graff said. “You can just tell these guys are super strong. And even though some of them have joyous personalities, you know they can just bring it and board somebody.”
‘Keep the spirit of hockey alive’
Graff and his father listened to Blackhawks games on the radio in the basement, and he played hockey in Chicago’s park district league while growing up.
But his dream was to be a scientific illustrator, and he was enthralled by the famous Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“Every day on my lunch hour I would go stand in front of that painting,” Graff said.
Graff moved to Hawaii in 1989 and purchased a house in Green Valley Ranch in 1995. He relocated to Henderson in 2004 and spent close to 14 years working at art galleries on the Strip.
Graff was doing a show with ex-Journey drummer Steve Smith three years ago at the Gallery of Music & Art located inside the Forum Shops at Caesars when he received his diagnosis of metastatic prostate cancer.
“Basically, I got 32 months to live,” Graff said. “That was (36) months ago.”
Graff sought treatment from Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang, a renowned oncologist with Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada who encouraged him to draw as a way to cope with his illness.
In the summer of 2018 following his niece’s death, Graff began to draw portraits of her and other family members to aid in the mourning process.
Soon after, he started to make portraits of the nurses and lab technicians who drew his blood or injected him with the Radium 223 that made his body radioactive.
“I think this is extremely therapeutic from his perspective,” Vogelzang said. “John’s a very creative, emotional fellow who’s got a deep understanding of art in our society and culture. The nurses, the front-line chemotherapy folks, they learn quickly about each individual’s unique skills and coping and psychology. John’s ability to inspire them, it’s a mutual benefit.”
When the NHL season went on hiatus, Graff noticed the disappointment among his friends and the technicians at Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, which is a sponsor of the Knights. He sought to “keep the spirit of hockey alive” with his artwork.
Graff starts with a pencil sketch to identify the unique facial features of his subject, then creates each portrait with dots using permanent marker.
“It’s kind of like you’re working micro,” he said. “To do an eye, it might take 15 to 20 minutes because you’re just doing ‘dot, dot, dot’ and your face is about six inches away from the paper.”
Graff and his wife, Peggy Arakaki-Graff, listen to Knights games on the radio, and this project gave him an opportunity to study each player in a new way.
Right wing Ryan Reaves is Graff’s favorite due to his rugged playing style, but Graff said he enjoyed learning about lesser-known players such as defenseman Brayden McNabb and forward Tomas Nosek.
He also was captivated by goalie Robin Lehner’s mental health advocacy and defenseman Shea Theodore, who was treated for testicular cancer last summer.
“We are constantly inspired by the courage CCCN patients continually demonstrate each day in their respective battles,” Knights president Kerry Bubolz said. “We hope our team can be a source of positivity and pride for these patients on their journeys and help in any way we can.”
The road ahead
Graff has several more Knights-themed drawings in mind to occupy his time during the pandemic and beyond.
He plans to do a series capturing Mark Stone’s facial expressions and another one of his favorite ex-Knights such as Ryan Carpenter and James Neal.
The relocation of the Knights’ American Hockey League affiliate to Henderson also provides additional subjects for Graff.
“(Nate Schmidt) turned out a little bit weird,” he said. “I’ll probably do him again, make him look not so crazy.”
Prostate cancer is the second-most common cancer among men after skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society, and Graff’s form can be treated but not cured.
Graff, who celebrated his birthday May 14, has an appointment with Vogelzang in June that will determine his prognosis for the next six months. The disease metastasized in his hips and spine.
“So far, we’ve got it under control,” Vogelzang said.
Graff has three children, including a daughter who recently finished her sophomore year at UNR. He said his goal upon receiving his cancer diagnosis was to see her graduate.
“The future seems bright,” Graff said. “I have to look to my diagnosis because the cancer I have is super aggressive and I’m shocked they were able to knock it back the way they did.
“It’s looking likely that my first goal will happen. Baby steps, but that’s what I’ve got to do. Just continue to do what the doctor says, do what my wife tells me and try to keep my health as long as I can.”