Having cancer, explained Echo Park photographer Della Rossa, makes you think about time and its uses.
"It's an impetus to do what one wants to do and to express one's self," said Rossa, 66, who had a mastectomy for breast cancer eight years ago and went on to produce what she considers to be her best work. "Often people don't express themselves unless they are shocked into it."
Rossa and 41 other artists who battled cancer--six of them now dead--did express themselves. The result is "Confronting Cancer Through Art," a surprisingly upbeat display of painting, sculpture and photography at the Brand Library Galleries in Glendale through June 2.
The show is the first of its kind in the nation, according to organizer Devra Breslow, who runs an arts program for UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, the exhibit's sponsor.
The main theme, she said, is that cancer changes how an artist views the world. For many survivors, that change is for the better.
"The word that comes to mind is empowerment ," said Breslow. "I know that is a buzz word, but it really is quite applicable. Each of these artists has taken a situation of crisis and turned it into a vision for other people."
Breslow, whose program at UCLA is called "Art That Heals," sent out 5,000 flyers inviting artists from the United States and Canada to submit slides of their work. The only requirement was that they have--or had--cancer. A jury of five Los Angeles-based curators chose 82 works by 36 artists from the 315 pieces submitted.
In addition, work by six well-known artists, including Corita Kent, Ruth Weisberg and Frederick Wight, were included without jury judgment.
"We felt we were learning things about the experience as well as seeing good art," Jay Belloli, a museum consultant, recalled of his work as a juror.
"The response to having the disease was either confronting it or escaping it through the art," Belloli said. "Some pieces are bleak and some very upsetting. But a lot are not. A lot are about growing things. They are a reaffirmation of life."
Several artists in the show said they were surprised to see how bright much of their colleagues' work is. Some of it is flowery and spiritual, some warmly humanistic.
For example, Della Rossa is represented by three photo portraits of men taken in Echo Park as part of a series exploring Sunset Boulevard from downtown to the beach. Each man appears to have his troubles, but each shows a sense of defiance and good humor.
In one photo, titled "The Ex-Boxer," a battered, homeless man has his dukes up, cheerfully ready for one more round of what the world can dish out.
Rossa said she always had empathy for people in trouble and that her own illness only reinforced that.
She delights in seeing how surprised people are when they meet her after having first seen her work. "People are expecting some big, tough guy with tattoos, and then they see I am a little middle-aged woman," she said, laughing.
Ellin James of Eagle Rock has two paintings in the show, soothing landscapes of the Eastern Sierra, where she has a cabin. She is 52 and has had two mastectomies, the more recent one five years ago. The paintings were done after the last surgery.
"When I had cancer, I related more with nature and the natural world," said James, who is a researcher in biochemistry at UCLA. "You reflect more on how small the human being is, especially compared to the natural world. You realize you are just part of the continuum."
To be sure, the exhibit has its sadder and rougher side.
The idea for the show grew from a series of solo exhibits by patients and non-patients in the waiting room and hallways at the UCLA cancer clinic over the past few years. Some of the pieces at the Brand exhibit are "too harsh and too disturbing" for patients to see at the clinic, Breslow said.
"The truth is that cancer is a dance with death for most," she said. "Some waltz right though. But for others, cancer is a pretty bad trip, and the treatment is very harsh."
Deborah Davidson, a 32-year-old art professor from Santa Ana, said she created about 60 paintings of dogs as part of a visualization therapy--focusing her thoughts and emotions on fighting the melanoma on her left thigh that doctors predicted would surely kill her.
Two of those works are in the exhibit. One portrays a ferocious, red, two-headed dog; the other shows a wild dog biting a garden hose and whipping water through the air. Both are striking, even scary.
"I was visualizing the dogs eating the cancer," Davidson said. "They were my immune system, much more powerful and vicious and aggressive than the cancer was."
She underwent three operations five years ago and recently was told that she probably has a 90% chance of living a normal life. She attributes that recovery partly to her paintings.
Ann Perkins, a 42-year-old Santa Monica painter, said she, too, used stark paintings to channel her energies--against the spread of the malignant melanoma she had on her neck.