SALT LAKE CITY — Dealing with a cancer diagnosis and the treatments that come with fighting it can take a heavy physical and emotional toll.
The Artist in Residence Program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute is helping patients and their loved ones focus on something other than the illness and is bringing a little color and creativity into their lives.
Those involved in the program will soon have an opportunity to see the works of other people in the program during a special private exhibit Tuesday.
Patients call their teacher, Jorge Rojas, "the art guy." He inspires people who are battling cancer by helping patients and loved ones to learn about, discuss and create art.
"When they're doing something that uses their creativity, takes their mind off of their illness and off of the depression or anxiety or anger, your ability to heal, I think, increases significantly," Rojas said the program.
Rojas is an artist, curator and art educator who studied art at the University of Utah and at Bellas Artest-El Nigromante in San Miguel de Allende Mexico. He uses traditional and new media, as well as performance, to explore the creation and processes involved in artistic production. His work and curatorial projects have been exhibited internationally in galleries and museums.
At the Huntsman Cancer Institute, Rojas can be seen pushing a cart full of art supplies on his weekly rounds. He sees patients one on one, or as part of a small group in a workshop setting.
The program brings relief from boredom, stress, fear, and pain associated with diagnosis and treatment.
Tami Riaz used to make jewelry, but it wasn't until this art class that she realized she could turn jewelry into art with a powerful meaning. She uses photographs of her kidney tumor specimen and turns them into earrings and pendants.
"It's a slice of the tumor, and I got it straight from the pathology department," Riaz said with a laugh. "The tumor that I have is called a chromophobe. That means that it doesn't show light, so it's very hard to stain. There's actually prettier tumors than this."
The art class is empowering, she said. "We don't know what it looks like, we don't know what it is, and it's just something scary," Riaz said. "If you see a picture of it, you say, 'This is it,' and it doesn't have to be so scary anymore."
John Maack was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer: mantle-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He completed the treatment, which involved chemotherapy and stem-cell transplant. Besides painting, he does pencil drawings. His superhero 'H' — whose arch enemy is cancer — stands on the strength of the names of all of the hospital staff, family and friends who helped him battle the disease.
"I really want to promote wellness and health, positivity ... you know, humor," Maack said.
He's an ultramarathon runner and continued to run while going through chemotherapy, though not as many miles as he used to.
"I'm just grateful to be running again. I plan on running the 100-mile race (in September) a year from when I checked into the hospital for stem cell," he said.
The Chadwick family has collected thousands of shells during family vacations, now Diana Chadwick is creating wall hangings for each of her four children. After treatment for pancreatic cancer, she is doing well.
"I just wanted something for my kids," Chadwick said. "It's a nice little wall hanging and it has different reminders of different vacations for each of them."
She gets emotional when she talks about the art class. 'It has helped me feel like I can contribute something, because here, I'm not tied down. Here I can just be me and have fun."
Cancer does not define them, their art does.
"It's been kind of like, I'm taking a hold of it, you know, and not just letting it lie there and do whatever it does," Riaz said. "It's like I'm saying 'here, this is what I have and this is what it looked like at one point.'"
"You can't let it define you," Maack said.
More than 80 HCI patients, family members and hospital staff have participated in the program since it began July 31, 2012.
The artist and supplies are sponsored by a grant from the LiveStrong Foundation.
The exhibit, which will take place at Huntsman Cancer Institute Tuesday, is only open to those who participated in the program.
"It's really exciting for me because we sit in a class together, but we don't always see each other's finished products, so I'm really looking forward to seeing what everybody's done," Maack said.
Contributing: Viviane Vo-Duc