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Bob Keyes

Bob Keyes has written about the arts in Maine since 2002. He’s never been much an artist himself, other than singing in junior high school chorus and acting in a few musicals. But he’s attended museums, theaters, clubs and concert halls all his life, and cites Bob Dylan as most influential artist of any kind since Picasso. He lives in Berwick.

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Posted: April 2, 2015

Portland artist Zoo Cain says yes to life, yes to benefit in his honor on Saturday

Written by: Bob Keyes
 Portland artist Zoo Cain is undergoing cancer treatment and his friends are organizing a fundraiser. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Portland artist Zoo Cain is undergoing cancer treatment and his friends are organizing a fundraiser. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Friends of Zoo Cain have organized a benefit dance to support the Portland artist, who is undergoing cancer treatment.

Twice in the last few months Zoo Cain has said, “No, absolutely not.”

Twice, he changed his mind.

The first time was when his doctor told him he had cancer. Lymphoma, to be specific. Cain accepted the diagnosis but refused treatment until he was told the consequence of doing nothing was death. “OK, I’m in,” he said.

The next time he put his foot down was when his friend Laura Casparius told him she wanted to organize a benefit dance to help him with medical bills.

No way, he said again – until he learned that one of his favorite bands had agreed to play and that his friends really wanted to help.

On Saturday, the Gold Room on Warren Avenue in Portland will host a fundraiser for Cain featuring the music of the Substitutes, a band that plays rock songs from the Woodstock era, which happens to be music that goes straight to Cain’s artistic soul. Not only did he attend Woodstock, but the music of Santana, the Grateful Dead and CCR still gets him up and going every morning.

Cain, 62, is a Portland artist best known for making kaleidoscopic abstract paintings on hard, flat surfaces. He also slices up old license plates and uses the letters and numbers to make statements.

As much as he is an artist, Cain also is a rock ‘n’ roll philosopher and dispenser of good karma. For the past two decades, he’s used his art to help prisoners and patients in jails and mental health hospitals. His own sobriety is central to his work, and much of his efforts focus on helping other people stay clean and sober.

Now, he’s on the receiving end of the community’s goodwill.

“I always find the silver lining to everything, and there’s a lot of silver lining to this,” he said. “Would I pass it up if I could? Yes, but if I have it, I might as well enjoy it.”

Saturday’s dance begins at 7 p.m., and prizes will be awarded for the “grooviest outfit” from the hippie era, said Casparius. Cain’s art will be for sale, and there’s a raffle and auction items. The idea is to raise as much money as possible. But the larger hope is that people show the kind of love for Cain that he has shown for others over the years, she said.

Cain lives on Valley Street in Portland. He has an apartment on the third floor of a century-old building, and it’s impossible to miss his place. When he moved in, he asked the landlord if he could decorate a little. The landlord said yes.

A little more than three years later, Cain has introduced as much color to the building as possible. He’s hung lobster buoys from the deck, and covered the stairway and community spaces with panels of color. His apartment is filled, floor to ceiling, with art, posters and artifacts from his life.

Cancer has shaken him. For the first time he can remember, he feels his mortality and his age. “All of a sudden my maturity went to 62,” Cain said. “I never knew what that felt like. Up until then, I felt more or less like 9 years old. The creativity was always bursting forth like I was a little kid.”

He still feels creative, but he doesn’t have the energy to produce work at his accustomed pace. He’s receiving chemotherapy treatment two days a week every three weeks. The regimen is to continue for five months, he said.

Cain often brings his art supplies with him when he goes for treatments. He makes paintings and drawings while receiving the drug via an IV tube. The cancer paintings, he thinks, are way more intense than some of his other work.

He plans to dance at his party on Saturday. He admits to feeling tired and “kind of like crushed gravel.” But when the tunes get going and the blood start flowing, he becomes inseparable from the dance floor.

He’s tried and so far succeeded at maintaining a positive attitude. His Facebook posts reflect his outlook.

From March 14: “I just want to stand up and fly. Life I must live to my fullest. Make a fool of myself a thousand more times, And shine, shine, shine, a million more.”

Also from March 14: “With cancer, feelings and thoughts grow deeper down. There is no careless or throwaway laugh or sentiment. Humor is stronger, sad emotions are felt acutely. Nothing and everything is fleeting. The richness of life and death is sweet to the touch, smell, sight.”

From March 17: “Send out waves of love, instead of despair and fear. Examine your life sure, but not so much in the light that you are missing all the good, the possibilities, and the innate goodness that hopefully, no is, in every crazy soul.”

Cancer has given Cain the chance to reflect. If he has regrets, he’s keeping them to himself. If he does not survive, he knows his plan for the after-life: “I’m going to paint the rainbow.”


WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: The Gold Room, 512 Warren Ave., Portland
INFO: 207-776-4820 or

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