Encounters with cancer

Resting on the Mountain, cut paper (Jenny Lee Fowler)

Eponina, photograph on silk (Charise Isis)

A new exhibition titled “Handwriting on the Wall: Encounters with Cancer through Memoir, Poetry and Art” opens this Saturday, May 5 at the Arts Society of Kingston (ASK). The multidimensional show features works of visual art alongside the written word, augmented by the spoken word with once-a-week readings of memoir and poetry by participants in the HealthAlliance Oncology Support Program and others affected by cancer.

An opening reception will be held from 5 to 8 p.m., with readings from 6 to 8 p.m. Light refreshments will be offered. Additional readings will be held in the members’ gallery each weekend during the run of the show, on Saturday, May 12, Friday, May 18 and Saturday, May 26 from 6 to 8 p.m. each night. “Handwriting on the Wall” is curated by Lucy Barbera, PhD, LCAT, of the Creative Art Therapy Studio in Kingston.

One of her motivations in doing the show, she says, “is to help stop the whispering about this disease and the people it affects; to reveal their lives’ courage, hope and beauty; to redefine this illness through a humanistic and creative lens.”

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As soon as we hear the word “cancer,” Barbera notes, “everything else gets occluded by that one reality. But the illness doesn’t define the person. And I feel like cancer and other illnesses that are feared are whispered about, and it’s time to stop the whispering, because we’re all suffering on one level or another. And so many of us suffer alone.”

Barbera references her sister, whose passing from cancer decades ago was due in part, she believes, to a culture of silence about the disease that led her sister to suffer alone and not seek out follow-up treatment.

And Barbera has never stopped thinking about her childhood friend, Janet DeStacio. Despite living on opposite coasts in California and New York as adults, the two remained close friends and spoke on the phone every other day until DeStacio’s death from cancer at age 40 in 1998. “She was probably one of the most creative people I’ve ever met in my life,” Barbera says. “From an early age, Jan kept these spectacular notebooks of memoir and philosophical poetry. Her pen name was ‘Chicken Brown,’ and then as ‘Madame La Roux’ she wrote The Practice of Classical Palmistry. When she died, she was working on a book superimposing palmistry with homeopathy, astrology and the Tarot.”

In their phone conversations, DeStacio frequently asked Barbera to make sure her memoir got published after she passed away. But the handwritten pages were given to someone else, and ended up in storage for nearly 20 years until the manuscript was finally brought to Barbera last year. She put it aside due to the constraints of daily living and trying to find time for everything, but in the back of her mind, she felt guilty about not getting her old friend’s work published.

“Handwriting on the Wall” was conceived on a short drive down Broadway in the space of four traffic lights, Barbera says. While sitting at a traffic light, thinking about her friend’s manuscript, the notion popped into her head, she says, that “There is more than one way to publish.” The idea to create a show inspired by DeStacio’s memoir set in motion phone calls at the next two lights to secure sponsorship from the HealthAlliance Oncology Support Program and gallery space for the show at ASK. The title that she says felt as if it were “whispered in my ear” at the last traffic light, “Handwriting on the Wall,” was a phrase that DeStacio had used frequently in their bicoastal phone calls over the years, as in “Why did I do that? I should have seen the handwriting on the wall.”

The visual artists represented in “Handwriting on the Wall” are Josephine Bloodgood, Jenny Lee Fowler, Juliet Harrison, Elise Lark, Ujjala Schwartz, Karen Shogren, Phyllis Silvers, Susan Togut, Susan York, Dara Young, Kathleen Carroll Walsh and Charise Isis, whose series of photographic portraits titled Grace is a deeply moving statement about the nature of beauty. Inspired by ancient Hellenistic works, the women in the photographs have undergone mastectomies but are presented as Greek goddesses, their changed bodies draped in fabric like idealized sculptures, their strength in what they’ve been through as evident as their continued beauty.

The readers at the opening reception on Saturday, May 5 will include Barbera reading excerpts from DeStacio’s letters and memoir. Ulster Publishing’s own Erica Chase-Salerno, whose Almanac Weekly column, Erica’s Cancer Journey, overflows with grace and life-affirming authenticity every week, will read her essay, “One More MRI and I’ll Stick to the Fridge.” Additional readings at the opening will be presented by Elise Lark, Susan Togut, Kathleen Carroll Walsh, Susan York, Susan Quillin, Melissa Eppard and Francine Glasser.

The readings in the gallery on May 12, 18 and 26 will be presented by Al Konigsburg, Meredith Hughes, Diane Golden Peterson, Linda LeGendre, Josette Lee, Alexandra Geiger, Melissa Wood, Jan Demuth, Craig Mawhirt, George Graham, Annie LaBarge, Thomas Tuthill, Phyllis Silvers, Dean Lavin, Blaze Aardman, Juliet Harrison, Abigail Thomas and another voice familiar to Almanac Weekly readers, writer Ann Hutton.

“The lived human experience is not always pretty,” says Barbera. “But as a creative arts therapist and educator, I’ve come to understand that the stories of others, as told in images, life stories and poetry, are not only healing medicine for the artists and writers, but also become teaching and healing messages for the entire community. When courage and creativity come together, it’s a message to the world that ‘I continue to live in the most creative way I can live.’ Instead of talking about their cancer or imagining their healing in a whisper, it’s a loud, ‘top-of-the-rooftop’ kind of thing: ‘This is my experience.’”

“Handwriting on the Wall: Encounters with Cancer through Memoir, Poetry and Art,” May 5-26, opening reception Saturday, May 5, 5-8 p.m., free, additional readings Saturday, May 12, Friday, May 18, Saturday, May 26, free, ASK (Arts Society of Kingston), 97 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 338-0331, www.askforarts.org/event/may-members-exhibition.

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