I might have cancer but I don't have time to die

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HE is larger than life, a giant of a man with size 17 feet, enormous hands and an impressive, floaty white beard.

The voice - almost in direct opposition to his frame - is a soft and gentle American drawl as Rick Ulman describes his paintings; those which are giant, brilliantly coloured and intricately patterned and his more recent, dramatically smaller works, still detailed but monochrome.

They are smaller and colourless, he says, simply with a shrug, because he is dying. The cancer medics fought with chemotherapy and radiotherapy two years ago has sneaked back to chew away at his 64-year-old lungs.

He may have only months to live but the cancer hasn't defeated one of Scotland's most prolific artists. Ulman, who used to smoke, has resolved that while lung cancer may be the death of him, it will not steal away what remains of his life.

"I've got 20 A4 etching plates for a new series of etchings already started, and I've two foot by three foot drawings for a series," he says. "I've so many ideas . . . you know, I don't have time to die."

Cancer may have shrunk Ulman's energy levels - and, consequently, his paintings down to a more manageable size - but it hasn't yet robbed him of his ability to speak spiritedly for himself of how he wants to live and ultimately die.

And exactly how that will happen is something Ulman - who witnessed his 89-year-old mother's painfully slow demise from cancer - has already decided.

"I don't want to be kept alive for the sake of medical science," he says. "I have written a clear directive and spoken to the doctors and nurses and people who treat me so they understand what my idea of dying is.

"My mother was 89 years old physically but she had died about five years earlier. She could no longer give love or receive love. She had cancer and it returned, and she was very depressed, she withdrew from life.

"I don't want to go the way she went, I don't want to be dead before my time has come."

So he gathered his family, doctors, nurses and staff at the Maggie's Centre, the cancer support unit at the Western General Hospital, to tell them - in what must have been among the most emotional series of conversations he has ever had - not to needlessly prolong his life.

"The way the law is written in Scotland, it says you can request certain things," he continues.

"We have a hospital system which means they can't have physician-assisted suicide, but they can allow you to state to them you have had your innings and you don't want to be kept artificially alive.

"All the doctors I've spoken to are comfortable with this. I feel very comfortable that my life and my death are going to be something I can be proud of."

There is already much to feel good about. Born in a small farm town a two-hour drive outside New York City, Ulman grew up in a largely immigrant community saturated in folklore and traditions. "It was a town of 3000 people and there were something like 30 different churches there, each with their customs, their music and their art," he recalls.

"It was the first thing that interested me and led me to have a respect and interest in folk art."

That, and a hugely influential uncle, who took the young Ulman to New York's art museums - from the largest to the smaller folk art and African art galleries - sowed the seeds of inspiration for the artist, musician and writer he would become.

By the time he had arrived in Edinburgh to study ethnomusicology at the city's university, Ulman's thoughts were already turning towards completing an art degree and a creative-writing course.

Now his work has shrunk to miniature, postcard size versions - a collection he has called "Cancer Works" is on display at the ERI - still heavily detailed and still inspired by folk art but drained of the bright colours he once revelled in using. But life, it seems, goes on for Rick Ulman.

• Rick Ulman's Cancer Works can be seen at the Pelican Gallery, Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, until the middle of January.