Surviving cancer can be a difficult experience to convey to other people. Joe Holcomb, director of Oncology Wellness at Integris Cancer Institute, said that the institute’s art show Celebration of Life helps many cancer survivors communicate their feelings.
“It’s very therapeutic,” Holcomb said. “It gives them a way to express their emotions, and it may be that of gratitude that they’re in survivorship. Many times it allows them to express, maybe, any type of fear that they have of a reoccurrence. But it also is a strong community that they have with each other. So it’s a way for them to connect on a yearly basis with a shared love of art.”
Celebration of Life, opening Thursday and running through Sept. 7 at Integris Cancer Institute, 5911 W. Memorial Road, exhibits artworks created by anyone affected by cancer — those diagnosed with the disease as well as their caregivers, friends, family and physicians and nurses, people Holcomb called “those that care for those that have cancer.”
This year, the exhibition displays more than 325 works, including watercolor and oil paintings, photographs, woven fiber art, framed poems, pencil sketches and sculptures, one of which is a 7-foot-tall abstract metal figure by Kenny McCage titled “Fight.”
“I do not remember ever having a metal sculpture of that size,” Holcomb said. “That would be kind of like a new piece that we’ve never had before.”
Pat Lynn Moses, who formerly worked at Integris as an art therapist, created Celebration of Life 24 years ago. Holcomb, who has been with the institute for nine years, said that some artists have participated in 20 or more of the annual shows. While some artworks depict abstract figures or smiling farm animals, others deal more directly with the disease.
“Maybe they’ve drawn themselves, and maybe they had lung cancer, so they would show the lung,” Holcomb said. “Or maybe they had an amputation because of that, so they would depict themselves without a limb or without an arm or they would depict themselves without any hair. So some of it, it’s very obvious that there’s something special about that piece of art, but much of the art will really not depict that. But each artist can submit information about how cancer has affected them, and we post that narrative below their piece of art and then that will go into detail about how their lives have been touched by cancer.”
The stories of those affected by cancer, whether patients themselves, caregivers or medical professionals, can put the artwork accompanying them in a different context.
The exhibition is open to the public and draws many visitors inside and out of the art world, but Holcomb said some of the people who appear to be most impacted by the artwork are often being treated for cancer at the institute.
“We have patients that are not part of the art show that will spend, sometimes, an hour just walking around and looking at every piece of art and reading every story,” Holcomb said.
Reading the accounts of people who have survived cancer and lived for years in recovery can be very encouraging to patients undergoing treatment, and life-affirming for people who may or may not have ever been affected by the disease. Professional artists as well as many amateur and first-time artists, some of whom are children, have artworks on display at the show each year. Artists of all experience levels are invited to submit, and works can be created individually or in collaboration with others. Holcomb estimated that 40-50 of the pieces offered for sale find buyers. Celebration of Life asks that artists donate 10 percent of their sales to continuing the art show. Several artworks have been included in Lilly Oncolology’s On Canvas art collections. Whether a veteran art show participant who has been in remission for several years or a current patient at the institute, Holcomb said everyone with cancer has something important in common.
“Our definition of survivorship is anyone is a survivor the first day of their diagnosis,” Holcomb said. “Once they are diagnosed, they are considered a survivor.”
First-time visitors might be surprised at the level of professionalism on display in the artworks and the variety of media used to create it, Holcomb said, and returning visitors might still be surprised at the large number of entries accepted this year. Everyone, he expects, will be moved by the experiences of the artists.
“It can be very emotional for people that have seen it each year and for those that have never seen it before because of the stories that go along, the narrative,” Holcomb said. “I think that’s what really makes this unique.”
Celebration of Life’s opening reception is 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday at Integris Cancer Institute. To RSVP, call 405-951-2277. Artworks will be on display through Sept. 7 at the institute’s Troy and Dollie Smith Wellness Center.