Coffee shop exhibit examines artists’ cancer experiences
OGDEN — While undergoing cancer treatment, sometimes too weak to even sit up, Justina Parsons-Bernstein started drawing comic panels to show what it’s like to live with the disease.
Now, over a year later, the Ogden resident’s 20-page comic book is one of over 45 exhibits that will be on display at Grounds for Coffee, 3005 Harrison Blvd., beginning Saturday through Nov. 15. The pieces include paintings, sculptures, textiles and more to convey the anger, sorrow, loss, love, joy, thankfulness, introspection, unexpected strength and irreverence that cancer has brought to their lives, Parsons-Bernstein said. Artists from all over the country as well as Australia are participating in the event.
“I was diagnosed in 2020-2021. What a gift for Christmas and the New Year,” Parsons-Bernstein said. “I ran the gamut of surgery, chemo and radiation. I lost my hair. I was bloated. I started taking selfies to document the changes in my body, hoping to see if there was anything left of me in there.”
Not only did she write and illustrate a comic book and take photos, Parsons-Bernstein also wrote a poem and did paintings to document her journey with cancer. Then she decided to reach out to others who were impacted by the disease, either as a patient, family member or caregiver, to see if they would supply an item for the exhibit.
“I wanted to reach out to people because the fact is that 40% of people will have some kind of cancer in their lifetime and nearly everyone has been profoundly affected by it one way or another,” she said. “This exhibition is created by people who have portrayed compelling, heartbreaking and sometimes hilarious works of art.”
The youngest artist is an 8-year-old Moab resident named Olivia who was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 4, Parsons-Bernstein said. Olivia drew a picture entitled “Monstrous Creature” just weeks before she was diagnosed.
“Her mom said it was really strange,” Parsons-Bernstein said. “In the couple of months before she was diagnosed, monsters became a common theme of Olivia’s art. Olivia’s mom came to believe that the monsters represented Olivia’s subconscious, trying to express the danger that was lurking in her.”
Another Ogden resident, Stephanie Howerton, will be displaying her textile art, which represents her mother, who died from cancer last year.
“She wasn’t feeling well so my brother took her to the doctor. She was diagnosed with cancer and given five to seven years to live, but she died three weeks later,” Howerton said. “It was a shock. It blindsided all of us.”
Howerton said she took an online class from Cas Holmes, one of the U.K.’s best known textile artists, and designed a piece for the exhibit by taking different types of paper materials and stitching them together.
“I wanted to use some things that represented what was important to my mom, so I found old school papers of us kids that she had kept, tiny hand imprints from us, an old Germany map, pictures of owls, little children lettering and a Peter Pan poem,” she said. “I am just so grateful Justina asked me to participate and I appreciate her inspiration to make this happen.”
Christina Graff-Charbonneau of Ogden created a piece made of needle felting entitled “Floral Death Mask: Pushing Up Daisy.”
“I haven’t had cancer personally, but instead, my journey has been through friends,” she said. “It struck me the most when Justina told me about her own cancer. Throughout it all, I was getting the daily blow-by-blow details of her pain and suffering, but also her glimpses of hope and recovery.”
Graff-Charbonneau said she had already started working on a needle felting piece when the pandemic hit, but it became both her reaction to COVID and the diagnosis of Parsons-Berstein.
“I was going to the grocery store, all masked up. There was a lot of fear and unknowns at the time and this gentleman walked up to me and just gave me a bouquet of flowers,” she said. “It was just so jarring and wonderful and I saw in the moment this artistic piece in my head.”
Graff-Charbonneau said she talked to people who survived cancer and asked them what their favorite flower was and incorporated those flowers into her art piece.
“When you are going through something so horrific, you try to seek out the beauty around you and that’s the mixture I wanted to portray,” she said. “Needle felting is very tedious and time consuming, so it’s very therapeutic to engage in it. I am really grateful to have been asked to participate in this exhibit and I hope people will be inspired when they see it.”
Dan and Suzy Dailey are the owners of Grounds for Coffee.
“Justina is a longtime customer and friend. Her cancer diagnosis was devastating and we could only stay in touch virtually throughout her treatment,” Suzy Dailey said. “From time to time, Justina sent some of the art pieces she was creating to help cope with her fight with cancer. I thought they were wonderful, so when she approached me with the idea of exhibiting her work, as well as others, across the country and world, I was intrigued.”
Dailey said the coffee shop has provided space for local artists for 30 years and it’s one of the aspects she loves most about running a coffee shop.
“Cancer touches so many of us, and for those who have gone through it themselves or have been caregivers to someone who has, or if you are in treatment now, we want you to know you are not alone,” she said. “Everyone will experience cancer treatment differently. We hope that through this exhibit people will find a piece that resonates with them. And, if you have been lucky enough to have not experienced cancer, to see how deeply it affects those who have.”
If local artists would like to be considered for an exhibit, visit www.GroundsforCoffee.com.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Proof of Life: Art in the Face of Cancer”
WHEN: Oct. 1 through Nov. 15
WHERE: Grounds for Coffee, 3005 Harrison Blvd., Ogden
A live Q&A with in person and remote artists will be held on Oct. 1 from 4-6 p.m.