BRUSHING AWAY THE FEAR, PAIN
CANCER PATIENTS SAY ART IS 'NATURAL CHEMOTHERAPY'
© 2003 - The San Francisco Chronicle
M.V. Wood, Special to The Chronicle
January 24, 2003
At first, the idea of participating in a painting group filled Toni Winter with tension.
There was that overwhelming feeling of having to produce an artwork that could somehow convey all the emotions and thoughts spinning inside her since she was diagnosed with breast cancer a month earlier.
It was further complicated by the fact that Winter had never painted before.
A friend had told her about the free group in Sebastopol headed by Martia Nelson.
It is open to women who have, or had, cancer. Artworks created by the class,
as well as by other cancer survivors in Sonoma County, will be displayed in the upcoming "Dancing With the Phoenix" art show.
"I called (Nelson) and told her I would like to join the group but I was nervous since I didn't have any experience, or any creativity for that matter, " said Winter, 49, who had been diagnosed a year ago last December. The Sebastopol resident is one of about 25 women participating in the show.
"And Martia was really good about cutting straight through all that. She pointed out that dealing with a life-threatening illness is a creative process in itself. And she said to just show up and have fun and to be kind to myself, to let go of all that pressure I was putting on myself to accomplish.
"The only way I could get to that first class was to keep repeating that I was just going there to play with some colors and have fun and I didn't have to do anything fancy."
By the end of that meeting, "I didn't particularly love the painting I came up with, but I absolutely loved the process. It was so freeing to let go of the idea that I have to create something that has to be planned out and perfect. And instead, I can simply enjoy doing it."
Winter is finished with her treatments and has an excellent prognosis, "but the lessons you learn stick with you. And even now, in all facets of my life, I tell myself that all I need to do is just go out there and enjoy the process.
Go out and have fun and truly live life while you still have it. It's become my mantra."
It's these kinds of life's lessons that are at the forefront of Nelson's art group. Working as a life coach, Nelson, 52, had been accustomed to talking to clients about "living in the here and now" and "enjoying the process" and "silencing the inner critic."
But leading the painting group has allowed her to offer people a safe, supportive space in which to actually practice this way of living.
"It's amazing how when you tap into this process, when you let your creative juices flow, it's like a natural chemotherapy," Nelson said. "It's very healing."
Winter agreed. "After I paint, I feel inspired and energized for a full 24 hours afterward. It's a physical thing. I actually feel better."
The first two years of its existence, the "Dancing with the Phoenix" show was held in a gallery. This year, the women decided to put up the works at the Redwood Regional Medical Group in Santa Rosa, which has an oncology center.
"The women wanted to show their art right there where other women were being treated for cancer," Nelson said. "It's heart to heart. Each painting is like a love letter from the soul."
Through their paintings and collages, Nelson added, some of the artists depict the lessons they learned on their paths of healing, such as "There is life after a cancer diagnosis" and "You can find inner strength you didn't know you had."
Other artists present the things they wish someone had told them early on, including "Be as compassionate to yourself as possible" and "You are not alone. "
The works Winter chose to show represent her struggle with body image following her diagnosis, and how she went about "re-imagining" herself, she said.
One of the challenges for her was losing all her hair from the chemotherapy.
"It's such a vulnerable feeling when you have no hair, no eyebrows, no eyelashes, and people look at you funny and they know you must be sick," she said.
The way Winter dealt with her apprehension was to paint her version of Johannes Vermeer's portrait "Girl With a Pearl Earring," which depicts a young woman wearing a turban. Winter's series of three paintings will be in the show.
"I loved that painting ever since I was a teenager," she said. "Even then, something about it struck me. And so, when I was thinking about being bald and wondering if I would wear hats or turbans or whether I would dare go out in public like that, that painting came to me and I wanted to paint it myself, make it my own."
Winter is a nurse in Kaiser Permanente's cosmetic dermatology department and she was accustomed to working with clients who had concerns around body image. "I think I was always pretty tolerant and compassionate and patient," she said. "But now, after I've gone through similar struggles myself, it's just different. I'm a better nurse for it."
Once Winter lost her hair, she did wear turbans. She even tried creating one like in the Vermeer painting.
"It didn't fit too well, though." And she did go out in public bald a few times. "Now, when I see a woman in the same situation in a crowd, a compatriot,
I might not say anything, but I'll just give her a touch to let her now I see her, to let her know she's visible."
It's these acts of reaching out, forming relationships, seizing the day - these acts of boldness - that have been the hard-won prize in the struggle with cancer.
"I've become a better person since I had cancer," Winter said. "I kind of hate to say this, but it really is a gift in some ways. I mean, I wouldn't wish it upon anyone, but it does force you to look at your life, to realize your priorities. And, life looks so much sweeter. You take the time to notice all the beautiful sunsets.
"I probably would have never discovered painting if it weren't for cancer. And it turns out that painting is one of the most important things I've ever done in my life."
Nelson, who has never had cancer, started the group two years after she began painting.
"I had never really painted that much before. And then, all of a sudden, I just got this intense urge to do it," said Nelson, author of "Coming Home: The Return to True Self." Perhaps she began because her nephew, whom she had been raising for several years, went back to live with his father. "It takes so much creative energy to raise a child, and so, when he left, I just had all this creativity that needed to let flow," Nelson said.
Or, perhaps she began painting because of the rainbows. Nelson was also raising her niece, who would draw constantly when she was little. She would raise up each creation for all to see and announce herself an artist. But then,
in the second half of kindergarten, she stopped doing that.
"So, I asked her why," Nelson said. "It turned out that the other kids in class made fun of her because she was drawing too many rainbows. Can you imagine that? Too many rainbows? How do kids, anyone, even get ideas like that in their head?"
Nelson was so upset about the rainbow incident that she went to the school to speak to the teacher about it.
"That's where we start stifling ourselves, killing our creativity. It's when we start listening to people tell us there is a good way and a bad way to be creative. Those are poisonous ideas. You can just let go of that and let yourself breath."
Not only is Nelson not sure why she started painting, she also doesn't know why she started the painting group. In fact, the question of why doesn't seem to interest her that much.
"One day I was painting, and all of the sudden, I heard a loud, very clear message tell me I should start this group. And when my intuition talks to me, I listen. I've learned that it always works out for the best when you listen to, and express, your true self."
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