Living with death close by: One artist’s perspective

by Len Lear
Posted 10/27/22

Two days after Eliza Callard was born, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and was placed in an incubator for three weeks. 

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Living with death close by: One artist’s perspective


Two days after Eliza Callard was born, she was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis and was placed in an incubator for three weeks. 

The inherited disorder causes severe damage to the lungs, digestive system, pancreas and other organs, and according to the Mayo Clinic, usually means a lifespan of about 44 years, with death most often caused by lung complications.

“At the age of six, I was told I would probably die by age 18,” said Callard. So she learned early that if she wanted to be happy, she had to make a friend out of her eventual death.

“When I was a child, I found a dead bird in the yard,” said Callard, who lives in the Germantown house she grew up in. (She also has lived in an apartment in Mt. Airy and a house in Chestnut Hill.) “I said to my mother, 'Is this what death looks like?' 

“I decided later that if my life was going to be short, it would be a good life with value, as Aristotle urged,” she explained. “I am a totally happy person today, even though I have had medical issues my whole life.”

Now, after a long and circuitous path, Callard has found a new calling in life. It came to her after the death of her mother, which affected her profoundly. 

“I always wanted to be a writer,” said Callard, “but when I was taking care of my mom, I lost the ability to express myself in words.”

Then in May of 2019 she went to visit friends in England, Scotland and Wales, where she had a profound spiritual experience. 

“In the middle of a field of sheep, I learned to grieve for my mom,” she said. “I came home and decided to be an artist.”

She came home, enrolled in some classes and read lots of books. 

“By the fall of 2020, my wife said, 'You are done with fake art. You are good enough to be a real artist,' ” Callard said. “So I set up a website and started painting in watercolors.”

That was a year and half ago. Since then, she’s gotten numerous commissions for paintings from friends. Most of her paintings are of animals, especially dogs. 

“I fall in love with whatever I draw,” Callard said. “Sometimes I paint an animal that I was not even hired for because I love the way they look, but after the person sees it, they usually buy it.”

Callard, whose mother had once curated a collection of children's books, has now illustrated two: “The Friendship Umbrella” by Jennifer Bleecher and “Gnorman the Gnome” by Kimberly Kester, and she is now illustrating her own book, “The Sky Elephants.” 

Callard said when she thinks of it now, she feels so grateful toward her parents, who worked hard to keep her alive.

My parents helped me with therapy three times a day, 45 minutes each time. Some kids get that and die anyway,” she said. “I am so lucky to have had such wonderful parents.”

At the age of 44, Callard said, she did become very sick, prompting doctors to try an experimental drug called Tricasta. But even that has worked out well, she said. 

“I am now much better, although I do take 40 to 45 pills a day,” she said. 

Callard attended Kelly Elementary School, Masterman for Middle School and then Central High School.

“We were one of the first classes with girls. They were not quite ready for us,” she said. "We had urinals in our bathrooms. Some girls put bouquets of flowers in them.”

Callard's parents met when they were both teaching in Kenya in the 1960s. Her father, Dan, who still lives in Germantown, came from West Virginia, and her mother, Judith, came from just north of London, England. Eliza and her brother spent idyllic summers traveling around the United Kingdom with their parents.

It was three years ago now that her mother died, at home in the house where Callard grew up. 

“My mom died in my arms,” Callard said. “She was a very special person, She was fiercely intellectual – she was the editor of the Germantown Crier (the publication of the Germantown Historical Society.)”

Callard graduated from Skidmore College in upstate New York as an English major, after which she was a reporter for the weekly Sussex Surry Dispatch in Virginia. She returned to Philadelphia and worked for the Video Library, a chain store that rented videos, among other jobs.

Callard was married 24 years ago at Awbury Arboretum to Emily Gavin, an occupational therapist, and they had a second ceremony when gay marriage became legal in 2015. They share their home with four cats, ages one to three.

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