Out of Africa: Nanaimo artist finds new career after violent attack
Valentine’s Day isn’t a happy one for Mitch Masyk.
Memories of chocolate, flowers and candlelight take a backseat to blood, violence and the sound of gunshots from a robbery gone wrong on a dark morning in Gabon, Africa five years ago.
It ended Masyk’s career as a pilot, led to post-traumatic stress counselling and ultimately a new career in art, which may finally allow the Nanaimo man to exorcise the ghosts of the past.
The only artistic training Masyk, 39, had was in high school and he admitedly didn’t take it very seriously.
His career was in aviation, training at Nanaimo Airport and Boundary Bay after taking a flight with a family member.
“I went flying with my cousin once and I got hooked,” he said. “I wanted to do this.”
With the help of another family member, he got a job with DHL International in Africa, where he retrained to meet the continent’s aviation requirements.
Masyk describes Africa as one of the last places that pilots fly planes, rather than relying on autopilot. Even then, he said he felt like a bit of a cab driver, shuffling cargo from one city to another.
He was scheduled to return to Canada on Valentine’s Day, and got up early that morning – before the crack of dawn – to prepare for his early flight. He was possibly the only person awake in the building, which housed families, soldiers and single workers, when he heard noises from downstairs.
He called for his roomate but heard no answer. That’s when intruders started kicking in his bedroom door.
Three men were on the attack, one armed with a machete, the other a wooden rod and the third with a handgun. As the door came down, Masyk was slashed and beaten, until the third man put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.
The gun misfired.
Disoriented, his ears ringing from the gunshot, Masyk’s elbow connected with one robber, putting him out of the fight. The others took off and Masyk followed into his flatmate’s room.
“You just don’t know – you can’t specifically remember getting cut,” he said. “It all happened in, like, four minutes.”
His roommate was face-down on the bed, a plastic bag over his head. Masyk pulled it off, and gave him three breaths of mouth-to-mouth before he regained consciousness. Masyk was still bleeding from extensive wounds to his back and arms – and missing the tip of his thumb.
“I thought, ‘I’m feeling pretty lightheaded’,” Masyk said. “I didn’t even know I was cut.
“For some reason, I thought, ‘I gotta find my thumb’.”
The commotion, particularly the gunshot, woke the residents of the complex, which included an officer in the French foreign legion, who called in the trooops.
The Canadian government warns travellers to Gabon, where the event happened, that “violent crime, including business and residential robberies and armed attacks, occur, particularly in Libreville and Port-Gentil.” It also warns that resisting a robbery could lead to further violence.
The French officer drove Masyk and his roommate to the hospital. Doctors reattached his thumb, stitched him up and that day he was on a cargo plane to Belgium for further surgery to reattach his thumb. From there, he flew home to Nanaimo.
“I didn’t cry until I got home and saw my parents at the airport,” Masyk said.
What followed was nine months of counselling for post-traumatic stress disorder, which allowed him to fill in the gaps of the night, which his mind had nearly erased.
“It allows you to forget what your mind doesn’t think it can handle,” he said.
Although he can resume flying if he chooses, Masyk retrained as a welder instead.
It was while metalworking that he was asked to weld a piece of stained glass and found it couldn’t be done. He developed his own process for fusing the glass with metal, which is faster and stronger. The pieces also weigh significantly more than traditional stained glass and can be bolted into window and door frames.
“The wall would rip off before the metal would break,” Masyk said.
Around the same time he started experimenting with glass he picked up a pen and put ink to paper, creating a series of geometric drawings that reflect his stained glass designs. He first tried painting but found it impossible to wield the brush without sensation in his thumb.
“This feels like when your foot falls asleep and it comes half awake,” he said.
Geometric patterns, bright colours and solid black lines crop up in his drawings.
Masyk is entirely self-taught and prefers to learn through experimentation than formal art classes.
“My drawings now are pushing 100 hours,” he said.
He no longer grinds his teeth at night and nightmares are rarer but Africa is still in his head – he’s just not quite ready to allow those images out onto paper and glass.
“I just don’t know if I’m ready to draw them,” he said.
A month-long show of his work is set for March at Artfitterz Gallery in Bowen Centre, near End of the Roll. An opening reception is set for March 8, 4-9 p.m., and Masyk will be manning the gallery for the following week if people want to stop by and learn more about his artwork.
For more information, please visit Masyk's website at www.kaleidoscopesun.com.