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Cancer survival art at the Figge:

'I was an artist, not a cancer patient'

by Amanda Hancock, QC Times


If you get diagnosed with breast cancer and you're treated with radiation therapy, you'll get used to the "radiation pose." You lay down on your back in a hospital gown with your hands above your head. You keep your arms still and turn your head to the side. You do this every day for six weeks or so.


"You get used to it, but you're terrified by it," said Gail Chavenelle, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005. "It's scary, and it's frightening."


During her treatments, Chavenelle, a sheet metal artist, went to her studio to express those frightened feelings. She cut out a sculpture matching her 5-foot-tall frame on that hospital bed. She wasn't sure what she was looking for.  And then she lifted the sculpture over on its feet."It was like, bang, it looked like a warrior," she said. "It looked like a power figure, not a helpless figure."


The tattoo-like markings on her breasts — drawn so the radiographer knows where to line up the machine — turned into battle scars.  From then on, Chavenelle, of Dubuque, wasn't scared of those radiation treatments or her breast cancer.  "Just by tipping the sculpture over, she became a warrior and a survivor," she said. "And so did I — it made everything all right."


Hers is just one cancer survival story out of dozens as told through art at the Figge Art Museum’s “Living Proof Exhibit: Cancer Survivor Art,” which opens Thursday.  The exhibit runs through Oct. 16 in collaboration with the nonprofit Living Proof Exhibit, which “celebrates the creative spirit of people impacted by cancer,” according to Pamela Crouch, the organization’s executive director.


The nonprofit last displayed a collection at the Figge in 2014.  “You’ll see 60 pieces of original art expressing how these women go through cancer and how they made it to the other side,” Crouch said. “It shows the journey in a powerful way.”


Crouch has a journey of her own. After being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, Crouch, a professional writer, developed aphasia and couldn't remember nouns.  “I was bald and puffy from steroids and couldn’t do my job,” she said. “I was feeling very sorry for myself.”

She found a way to cheer herself up — through painting birdhouses, many with pink roofs, and gave them to newly diagnosed cancer patients.  “I couldn’t say the word for birdhouse, but I knew it was making me feel better and healing my mind,” she said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was art therapy."


She and Mary Ellen Cunningham put on the first Living Proof Exhibit in 2010 at the Bucktown Center for the Arts. The exhibit typically features sewing, knitting, oil and watercolor paintings, sketches and sculptures.  It also includes puzzles, created by Terri Reinartz of Davenport. 


Soon after her diagnosis, Reinartz would bring puzzles along to pass the time while waiting at doctor's offices. Then, she began designing her own puzzles.  "When I was making something, I didn't think about being sick," she said. "I was an artist, not a cancer patient." 


For artists such as Chavenelle, that lesson "is too important not to share."   “It shares that it's possible to survive,” she said. “Even in the middle of being scared, you can be strong, and you can be a warrior.”

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