BY ELISE ZWICKY
For Chronicle Media
Breast cancer survivors Pamela Crouch and Mary Ellen Cunningham didn’t know each other when each stumbled upon the benefits of art therapy more than five years ago, but the two are partners now in a nonprofit organization that helps cancer patients and survivors through art.
Their Quad Cities-based organization, Living Proof Exhibit, is bringing its annual show featuring 75 works of art created by cancer survivors to the gallery space at the Peoria Public Library, 107 N.E. Monroe through June 30. The public is invited to an opening reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday, June 13.
This is the first time in the group’s five-year history that it’s taken the show on the road, executive director and co-founder Pamela Crouch said. The show has been held since 2010 at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa, but will now travel every other year to places such as Peoria, Chicago and Des Moines.
“Peoria is a perfect place to bring this exhibit because it’s a central location with a thriving arts community and nearby colleges, and the library is within walking distance of the hospitals,” Crouch said. “As always, we hope these beautiful works of art will inspire those who are facing the diagnosis of cancer.”
Crouch and Cunningham met at a breast cancer support group about three years after each had been diagnosed. During her treatment, Cunningham found relief through photography, while Crouch began painting birdhouses.
“I sat there bald and fat from steroids and feeling very sorry for myself when it occurred to me that I’m supposed to be a creative person,” said Crouch, whose writing career was sidelined by her illness.
“I started painting birdhouses with pink roofs and flowers and butterflies, and I gave them to other newly diagnosed cancer patients,” she added. “I started using art therapy. I just didn’t realize at the time that’s what it was.”
The two met in March 2010 and put on their first Living Proof Exhibit in Davenport that fall. They soon began offering monthly art therapy classes and frequent workshops for cancer patients and survivors and now include caregivers and families.
“We started out just including breast cancer survivors, but we have expanded to include any kind of cancer, men or women and teens and children,” Crouch said. “So the show is a pretty wide variety not only of the styles of our works, but the people exhibiting.”
One exhibitor, Linda Sykes, of Moline, said finding art therapy through Living Proof Exhibit has opened a new world for her.
“I have found that art therapy relaxes me, so I think it’s beneficial not just mentally but physically, too. I can feel my tense muscles relax when I do my printing,” said Sykes, who does landscape watercolor monotypes.
First diagnosed 14 years ago with a rare cancer called leiomyosarcoma that came back three years ago, Sykes will be among several artists who will be at the Living Proof Exhibit opening reception at the Peoria Public Library.
“I’m interested in seeing what everyone else has done and seeing my things hanging, because it makes me feel proud,” she said. “I’m also interested in talking to people to let them know there are things you can do to help yourself, because cancer is frightening and extremely stressful.”
Sykes will also help teach Living Proof Exhibit’s next art therapy class from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 16, at the Quad Cities Gilda’s Club in Davenport. The class is free and open to anyone within a 150-mile radius. Anyone interested in attending should call the Gilda Club at (563) 326-7504.
Crouch said she hopes the exhibit will make people aware of art therapy as a career and the need for art therapy classes.
“There are very few art therapists in the Midwest, although research shows it to be very beneficial. It’s another tool in that tool box in fighting cancer,” she said. “When your hands are busy, your mind is calm.”
In partnership with the Figge Art Museum and with funding by the Iowa Arts Council, Living Proof Exhibit did an art therapy project last year called Full Circle in which participants cut up hospital gowns and turned them into paper journals.
This year the group has been working with a grant from the Komen Quad Cities called Wrapping Ourselves in God’s Love in which African-American breast cancer survivors have created a story quilt with each panel telling the story of one of the survivors.
Due to a quick turnaround when the library space became available for the exhibit, Crouch said they were unable to obtain artwork from local survivors or patients for the show, but she hopes Peoria-area survivors will join the exhibit in the Quad Cities next year and not wait until it comes back to Peoria.
“One of the greatest things about our exhibit is we’ve had people who are newly diagnosed see this is truly a message of hope,” Crouch said. “They see that people have gone before them and are thriving now and creating.”
The Living Proof Exhibit includes nearly every art medium, including photography, acrylics, oils, mixed media, fiber arts ranging from quilting to prayer shawls to hats, jewelry and handmade paper.
As a nonprofit organization, Living Proof Exhibit welcomes donations and sponsorships. For more information, call (309) 236-1360 or email firstname.lastname@example.org