Meaning of medicine at art show in Joshua Tree

This piece titled “Wheel of Fortune – American Style” is Wendy Gadzuk's commentary on the dark side of the medical profession.

JOSHUA TREE — Medicine means different things to different people. It can be serum from medicinal plants, cold remedies off the drugstore shelf, activities to relax or symbols, like animals, that bring insight and awareness.

This month, three artists look at these meanings and more in “Medicine,” a collection on display at La Matadora Gallery in downtown Joshua Tree. Racheal Rios, of Tucson, Arizona, and Tony Buhagiar and Wendy Lee Gadzuk, of Morongo Valley, contributed works.

Gadzuk, an artist and musician, curated the show, which opened June 8 and runs to July 7. This is the third show she has curated at the gallery, owned by Coleena Sabatino.

“I woke up one morning with the title ‘Medicine’ in my head. It seemed perfect,” Gadzuk said. Perfect because for the last year, she has essentially been caregiver to her partner, Buhagiar.

Buhagiar lives in a wheelchair, but it wasn’t always that way. In 2007, long before meeting Gadzuk, he had surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm, after which doctors placed him into an induced coma. While he was immobile, his blood pooled in his back, cutting off circulation. When he was brought out of that coma, he was paralyzed from the chest down. His condition often gives him pressure wounds, the most recent of which became infected.

Thus began their year-long ordeal of recovery. For six months, he was in hospitals and a nursing facility. For the remaining six months he was at home, being cared for by Gadzuk. In the role of caregiver, she was not only providing moral support, but administering medicine via syringes and IV tubing, even using something called a “wound measuring tape” to track the size of the wound.

Although most of her time was consumed with Buhagiar’s care, Gadzuk says as an artist, the need to create was always there. With an overabundance of medical waste piling up, it just seemed natural to make art with it.

Gadzuk’s assemblage work is large; some of the pieces are 3 to 4 feet tall. She is influenced by Byzantine iconography and sees the pieces as “altars, honoring the objects for their life-giving, or saving, properties.”

The final piece she created is titled “Sacred Wound.”

“That one was a beast,” she said.

“I remember one day when Tony came home from his wound doctor. His nurse noticed a sharp piece of chipped bone protruding through the wound. I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I thought about the idea of a sacred wound, and how much spiritual weight this wound has carried for both of us. Seeing the visual evidence of the bone being broken, it was a lot to take in.”

The piece contains, wings, gauze, IV tubing, wound measuring tape, bone and several pieces of clear or white quartz — a stone considered to be healing in alternative medicine. The wings at the top of the piece represent a life-giving spirit presiding over the whole experience.

Gadzuk’s work also touches on the dark side of the couple’s relationship with the health care system, as in the piece titled “Wheel of Fortune — American Style.” The piece centers around a tiny baby doll with a missing leg, a bullet for an arm and a gold heart painted on its chest. It’s surrounded by syringes, tubing, pills and dollar bills; it not only brings to mind the choices some people face deciding to forgo medical care, food or housing, but the idea that self-medication may be their only option.

For Buhagiar, his art is medicine. In addition to playing music with Gadzuk in their project “Stone Levitation,” he draws using ink and marker in an otherworldly and cartoonish style on themes of politics, religion, space aliens and cats. One piece includes a small poem with the line, “This ailing earth must be defended. Evil men shall be upended.”

These days Buhagiar’s health is much better — he was at the exhibit’s opening.

After the difficult, roller-coaster year they have had, Gadzuk expressed how cathartic it was to have her and Buhagiar’s work displayed together.

The third artist in the show is a friend of Gadzuk’s. Racheal Rios works in large-scale charcoal drawings inspired by nature and life. Depicting mostly birds and animals, it brings to mind medicine in the Native American tradition. In that tradition, it is believed that certain animals cross our paths to bring us healing or to suggest thoughtful contemplation. They are large emotional pieces, some 5 or 6 feet in length.

All three artists are on Instagram. Buhagiar is @funnyfarmart, Rios is @rachealrios and Gadzuk is @wendy_lee_gadzuk and her website is

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