As Covid-19 heightens the anxieties of cancer patients, online support groups step up efforts to help by means of social networking. One such group, Twist Out Cancer, sponsors an innovative program called Brushes With Cancer that matches patients with artists who create a unique piece of artwork to capture the experience of their disease.
When I first heard about Brushes With Cancer, I was predisposed in its favor because I have witnessed firsthand the transformative capacity of the visual arts. Generally, I forewarn prospective patient-readers about the depressing account of ovarian cancer in my book “Memoir of a Debulked Woman”; however, one stranger’s response elated me. Juliet R. Harrison sent me an art object that made the darkness visible. She had gutted the book — cut into its cover, torn out most of its pages — and then sutured it back together with splints, paste, fragmented words and wire. Broken, hollowed and rebound, it concretized the evisceration I had tried to protest.
Brushes With Cancer promotes the exchange of this sort of uncanny gift. On the website of Twist Out Cancer, painters, designers, sculptors and photographers as well as survivors, patients and caregivers can sign up to engage — with the aid of a mentor — in a four-to-six-month partnership.
Jenna Benn Shersher, the chief executive of Twist Out Cancer, told me that when she founded it in 2012, an art history student named Anna Swarthout (now Moschner) posted a video saying that she felt robbed of her creativity while dealing with the same disease Ms. Shersher had overcome: gray-zone lymphoma. Could others provide her artwork — without using the color gray, she asked? The “huge response” convinced Ms. Shersher that many would profit from such interactions: “Not only do people get to tell their story; they then see it through someone else’s eyes, which can be therapeutic.”
Begun in Chicago, Brushes With Cancer has chapters in Philadelphia; Detroit; Austin, Texas; Toronto; Montreal; and Tel Aviv. Artworks are displayed at its galas and auctioned off, and the money raised is plowed back into the program. “What if the subjects who served as inspiration want to keep the work?” I asked Ms. Shersher. She explained that they have first right: “Relatives often chip in to contribute, although some people believe that the rendering of their cancer encounter should circulate more widely.”
Although the pairings were originally done in person, the program has pivoted in the pandemic, Ms. Shersher explained in an email. “We decided in late March to move all of our programming and large scale art exhibitions and celebratory events into the virtual space,” she wrote. “This means that all artist and inspiration interactions are done virtually for the safety of our participants.”
The works in Brushes With Cancer address and redress the fright and anguish of a disease that can be indiscernible in its progression and isolating as well as deadly.
Like the art made from my deconstructed and reconstructed book, one work titled “Walking In, Walking Out” reconfigures a cancer memoir, Bob Kaufman’s “Replenished.” Bryan and Liz Kuntz, with Ricky Kimball, created a surrogate of Mr. Kaufman, trudging across the pages of his account of surviving late-stage non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and a bone-marrow transplant. The verso page with its gouges and gorges must have been difficult to slog through. It looks as if the solitary figure had to drag his feet across the treacherous terrain, ripping up his own language in an effort to reach the clear plain of the recto side.
Equipped with a hat and a backpack, Mr. Kaufman’s avatar straddles the adjacent but incongruent geographies of during and after treatment. The artists remind us how many patients set themselves simple goals: of walking out of the hospital on their own two feet and of disclosing their ordeal like an open book.
Focused also on gritty determination, Bowen Kline’s painting “Bombs Away” depicts Grace Fauls Lombardo holding a lit bomb inscribed with the message “To Cancer. TlcN1. Love, Grace.” In an accompanying legend, Mr. Kline states that doctors would look at Ms. Lombardo’s diagnosis — T1 is the breast tumor, c the size, N1 stands for one involved lymph node — before looking at her. After diagnosis, Ms. Lombardo began a blog that she called “grancer,” a neologism that rhymes with cancer but contains all the letters of her hopeful first name.
What makes Mr. Kline’s figure more than a poster girl for a “we-can-beat-cancer” cliché? Ms. Lombardo’s wary expression after she has lit the fuse to blow cancer to smithereens. “Here goes nothing,” she seems to be saying, “but what the hell?” Despite her bravado and the artist’s comic approach, the proximity of the bomb to her head feels ominous.
A number of the more poignant paintings sponsored by Brushes With Cancer confront loss more overtly. With a nod to Picasso, “Our Tangled Stories” depicts two closely aligned heads and torsos. To accompany it, Virginia Champoux-Sokoloff describes her mother’s 20-year-old struggle with breast cancer and then her different approach to the disease. Might the two figures represent the daughter, wide-eyed, and her dead mother, shut-eyed? Or they could be Ms. Champoux-Sokoloff before and after her mother’s death.
But the artist Ishita Banerjee states that in the aftermath of a double mastectomy Ms. Champoux-Sokoloff suffered the loss of her husband to lung failure. From this perspective, the two interfused figures signify the patient and her beloved spouse. Circling lines radiate out from the center of both chests — two breasts, two lungs, a breast and a lung — to portray the intimacy of the living and the dead. A doubled yet single being in mourning, one cannot move without the other.
Ofer Katz undertook not a Cubist but an impressionist approach to grieving in his otherworldly painting “Things I wanted to tell you — Mark and Aliza Ainis at The Dead Sea.” The artist explains that Aliza’s father passed away after a long struggle with cancer on the day of her high school graduation and that she missed being able to tell him about her ongoing life. Mr. Katz “wanted to create a scene that manifests the absence of conversation, but with a presence of deep paternal love.” His consolation for her regret over unspoken words takes the form of a primal scene of numinous beauty.
Awash in the blues that connect the sky with the landscape and the water, the father at the piano cradles his infant daughter in his lap while playing her a tune by the light of the silvery moon. Preserved on canvas, father and child reside together in what Freud called the oceanic: the sense of unbounded limitlessness, of being merged with each other and the external world. No one can drown in the Dead Sea, most people believe, because of its high salt content, though it is impossible not to anticipate the pianist and his swaddled baby sinking into the unfathomable depths of memory.
Like Frida Kahlo, who painted flowers so they would not die, the participants in Brushes With Cancer illuminate the meaning of Thomas Merton’s statement that “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”
Susan Gubar, who has been dealing with ovarian cancer since 2008, is distinguished emerita professor of English at Indiana University. Her latest book is “Late-Life Love.”