An exhibit at the James Art Gallery inside Ohio State University's Comprehensive Cancer Center reveals the power art can have in someone's darkest days. Mike Foley explains.
Michelle Brandt has owned and operated Brandt-Roberts Galleries in the Short North for about a decade. But last year, Brandt endured major surgery and six months of aggressive chemotherapy following a stage 4 cancer diagnosis. Even though she spent less time at the gallery during her recovery, the time she did have there and through art therapy at the James was incredibly valuable.
"What I realized is that when I was around artists and art, it lifted me somehow," Brandt reflected. "It made me feel like I was more than this sick cancer patient. I could still dive deep into that creative process. I don't know that there was anything more than the art therapy here at the James that helped me get through that mental battle. It was immersing myself into something that fed my spirit."
Brandt has been cancer-free for about 12 months. When she was asked to curate a gallery in the James, Brandt immediately thought of another artist and cancer survivor, Columbus College of Art & Design Associate Professor Julie Abijanac.
"About 14 years ago, I found a lump in my neck." Abijanac recalled. "They diagnosed me at stage 2, and it was travelling down the front of my chest. After having the mass removed out of my neck, I was starting treatments every other week for Hodgkin's. I was in remission for 3 to 5 years, and after the fifth year was pronounced cured."
But doctors also told Abijanac to avoid the form of art she loves. Abijanac began painting and sculpting at a young age and in school at Columbus Alternative and Fort Hayes.
"The reason why we paint is because of the love of the smell of the oil paint and getting in there, and so having to dress up to paint didn't feel authentic to me as a maker," Abijanac said. "I decided it was a good time to reinvent myself as an artist. So I taught myself how to crochet. I went right into the fiber world. We talked a lot about lymph nodes, so I thought I could create little nodules. The dark one is the sick self, and the lighter one is the self getting better."
Abijanac points to another piece titled Cell Therapy.
"So this one is the one I'm really connected with, because I’m in that mode of process with it,” Abijanac said. “I’m using new material and beading in a different way. I keep going back and forth with the rounds, the cell objects. I started sewing them together and then started adding the beads. So they used to be perfect round balls, and then as I added beads they changed in structure. They started shifting and changing on their own which kind of relates to the idea of how cancer shifts and changes on its own."
Abijanac's gallery opened last week, but's it's already making an impact according to Brandt.
"I just met a gentleman who came in whose son is a basketball player at Capital University and his lung collapsed," Brandt said. "He came in and isn't an art person, but he was fascinated by the texture and the forms. Some of Julie's work in my opinion is very meditative, and meditation was a huge piece of my recovery. Cancer is as much a mental battle as it is physical battle. This actually elevates that to a positive kind of thing."
For Abijanac, that's the ultimate goal for visitors.
"I want them to see the beauty in something that could be devastating," Abijanac said. "There's beauty in nature, and I want to bring that into these pieces and kind of have people see beauty in something that could take a life unfortunately. But we need to think beyond that sometimes and focus on what's around us. What's right now. I remember rolling with the punches and taking it day by day. I feel like I still do that. It's really important to wake up and feel good. I'm looking forward to my day, and I don't think I felt like that before I was diagnosed."
Abijanac's Reflect, Refocus, Renew exhibit will be on display at the James through December 19th.