04/11/04 — Cancer patients find solace in art classes

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Cancer patients find solace in art classes

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 11, 2004 2:03 AM

Peggy Bill was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990, but for the next 11 years she thought she had beaten it. Three years ago, it returned.

One suggestion from her doctor, Jim Atkins of Southeastern Medical Oncology Center, has proven to be as healing as any treatment.

"You're devastated and you're down," Mrs. Bill said. "Dr. Atkins told me to go find something I'd like to do, something I've always wanted to do."

For her, that was painting. She had never picked up a brush, but was not deterred. She began taking lessons from Christy Thompson, a woman she says is more than an art teacher; she's a lover of souls.

"It was just what she needed and what I needed, too," Mrs. Bill said.

Ms. Thompson was a single mother who found herself abruptly unemployed. She had a talent for painting but never envisioned she could make a living doing what she loved. She started teaching out of her home, and for the past two years she has also given lessons at Mrs. Bill's home.

"For 90 minutes while she's here, you can completely lose yourself in what you're doing," Mrs. Bill said.

Losing herself also resulted in finding herself. Mrs. Bill's first painting pays tribute to that.

"Someone sent me a postcard by Thomas Kincaid of a cottage," she recalls. "It reached out to me because of its warmth and the light behind it. I wanted to try that one."

It took her about three months to complete and she has had offers to buy the painting, but says she turns them all down.

"In that painting is my soul," she said. "Money can't buy that."

"When people ask what it means, I say it means that Jesus is saying to me, 'I am the light; come to me and I will save you and give you rest.'"

Soul's Palette

Mike Evans of Goldsboro was also a patient at the oncology center and like Mrs. Bill, didn't know anything about painting when he started taking lessons from Ms. Thompson eight months ago.

He has completed about 25 paintings, sold several, and wanted others to enjoy it as he had. He suggested it to the clinical social worker at the center, Beth Castrati, who warmed up to the idea that it might benefit the patients there.

"I have always been a lover of art," Ms. Castrati said. "I had gotten away from my artistic side but I thought, we have got to do that here somehow."

She suggested the break room be used for the lessons, and the doctors approved.

Ms. Thompson called the group "Soul's Palette" and began lessons at the center nearly a year ago. Once a week, patients can choose between two 90-minute sessions on Thursday afternoons. Many of them had no previous experience; one could not even hold a brush when she began.

Stories of struggle

Malissa Smith of LaGrange was one of the first students in the class that started last July. Her difficulties are different from the other students' problems. A severe copper deficiency caused a blood disorder and severe memory loss. She is also a quadriplegic with limited mobility.

Ms. Thompson said she determined before she even met Ms. Smith that "I would find a way for this lady to paint."

The 35-year-old student said she had always liked to paint but was pessimistic at the outset.

Volunteer teacher Linda Clark said that when Ms. Smith started, she lacked dexterity.

"We'd hold the brush and load it up with paint," she said. "She couldn't open her hand. At that point, she had to grab one hand with the other one to make it move.

"In the last few months, she's been able to hold the brush on her own."

Ms. Smith said she is learning different things she didn't think she would be able to do.

"I enjoy being here," she said. "It's relaxing and it's fun. And everybody knows there's something wrong with everybody."

Her first painting was a southwestern scene of a cactus, which won second place in the handicapped division at the recent county fair. She gave it to Dr. Atkins for "saving her life," and it now hangs in his office.

Pat Kornegay of Goldsboro has done three paintings since she joined the group nearly six months ago. She said the class was recommended by one of her physicians.

"I never dwelt on it because I thought, 'You can't do this,'" she said.

Her first painting depicted a desert, and the second one was of her family's home, which was a gift for her parents' anniversary.

She said she has not had a cancer treatment since Thanksgiving and feels good most of the time. The new group of friends has also been helpful, she said.

"People that have been through some of the same stuff that you have," she said, "it makes a big difference.

"You're not as afraid to try because you see everybody's in the same boat."

Fran Parker of Rosewood said one of her problems was a lack of concentration and having back problems that limited some of her activities. She had painted with oils, but never with acrylic paints.

"I needed something to get more motivated," she said. "This has helped with my concentration."

She said she has also appreciated the conversations with others in the group.

Jerry Honn of Goldsboro has been a cancer survivor for eight years. Retired from the Marines and on disability, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and chronic lymphoma leukemia from Agent Orange while in Vietnam. Now in remission, he said, he became a part of the class at his wife's urging.

"My wife thought it would be a good idea and so far, it has," he said.

Honn had never painted before and is now working on his sixth piece of art.

"I enjoy it and everybody here," he said. "Like the Marine Corps, it's got that camaraderie.

"We support each other. Yet you can have quiet time to concentrate on something besides your cancer."

Evans, 48, said he should not even be alive today. He was first diagnosed with cancer at age 15, again at 19, then at 20. He has lost a leg to the disease and is now battling three different types of cancer.

"I'm proud that I have lived this long," he said. "And I have really been blessed by being here with this group. All these people give me the initiative to keep pushing, keep going.

"When you're doing this, you don't think about what's going on with you at that moment. You don't think about chemo treatment; you don't think about how much you hurt."

He credits the Lord for working in the group, but says finances are needed for the group to grow.

Continuing the mission

"These people are going through so much as it is," Ms. Castrati said. "When you have patients who say, 'I can't pay my bills; how can I pay for paint?'

"We don't want a patient to ever have to pay for these classes."

She and Ms. Thompson have solicited help from churches and other groups, and Evans has also gathered donations from businesses.

"A lot of support has come from churches," Ms. Thompson said. "People are donating in memory of family members."

She is often given opportunities to share with others why the program is important, which is probably the easiest part of her job. It has allowed her to bring out creativity some did not realize they had.

Her students have extended beyond those with critical or terminal illnesses.

"Everybody I have had has had major challenges in their lives, even my private students," she said. "But Soul's Palette is about the people."

Because of that, she is able to keep taking the leap of faith that got it all started.

"I feel like if I keep doing the right thing, which is help those people find the satisfaction from painting that I have found, God will provide," she said.

"This has a life of its own and we're simply to follow His footsteps. It's going places that we never thought it would go."

Ms. Castrati said that at the outset, the two women agreed that this was bigger than they were and they were just along for the ride.

"I see how much counseling can help people but this has added a different dimension to that," she said. "No matter what you do in counseling, you couldn't reach them in this way."

She said it's more than about art. It's also group therapy.

"I have never seen anything like it, and it's the thing I am most proud of in my work," she said.

"When you see these patients go home with a painting," Ms. Thompson said, "and they say they wanted to do it to have something to leave with the family, to give something from them that was filled with love, it's a blessing.

"You can also take it a step further and see how it's almost like a 'pay it forward.' It has blessed not only Mother and Daddy but all the relatives in the family."