Brushes with Cancer Artist Sara Zielinski understood the assignment.
In 2021, she was paired with Inspiration Pam Oliver, a mother grieving the recent loss of her daughter, Kristin, who had a rare form of heart cancer.
They were hundreds of miles away and took advantage of technology, connecting mostly via video chats. This was important to the relationship, as Sara could see how Pam and her family honor Kristin in their home. To find comfort, Pam has created multiple sanctuaries in her home, including a beautiful healing garden that pays tribute to Kristin. That garden served as the backdrop to most of the pair’s conversations.
“Oftentimes, Pam would be outside or go outside into her beautiful garden, which was a central point to our conversations,” Sara said. “She was so open from the beginning. Working with Pam is amazing and I’m so happy to know her.”
Through these intimate conversations, Sara became closer to Pam and Kristin’s story, which helped inspiration come naturally.
“I definitely connected – and continue to be connected by Pam and Kristin’s relationship as mother and daughter.”
With Sara’s inspiration from Pam, the next step was determining what to do with it – a challenge she took very seriously.
Pam’s Sanctuary Comes to Life
Sara had images and themes in her head from her video calls with Pam. Now she had to piece it all together.
“It’s difficult. it’s a challenging project, and it’s a lot of responsibility,” she said. “Pam was so generous in sharing her story and experience with me – I wanted to match that.”
At first, Sara wasn’t sure what medium she wanted to pursue. She thought about painting, photographs or collage, however, things began to come together through a piece of fabric she already had on hand.
“It felt very tranquil,” Sara said.
From there, Sara began piecing things together based on the stories she exchanged with Pam. During Kristin’s treatment, she indulged in animal shows, with elephants being her favorite animals to learn about. After watching the programs, Kristin would often tell Pam interesting facts about the animals.
“I knew I wanted to include elephants,” Sara said. “I made drawings and had different ideas for how to portray the elephants, but I really liked these ready-made toy elephants.”
Sara incorporated those toy elephants into the piece to represent Pam, her husband, Calvin, and the couple’s three children. With the fabric, Sara added the elephants and key colors that popped up throughout her conversations with Pam.
“Pam spontaneously shared some colors that were meaningful,” Sara said. “Their living room has beautiful pale green walls and flowers, and the art in the room has those elements. She always spoke about the garden in particular as a sanctuary and showed me the living flora in the garden, as well as flowers preserved from Kristin’s memorial.”
Throughout the process, Sara and Pam did not discuss Sara’s work. Pam and her family had no idea what the piece looked like until the big reveal – Pam completely put her trust in Sara’s hands. When it came time for the reveal, Sara was happy it was a family affair.
“Pam’s husband Calvin was there for the reveal call, which was special,” Sara said. “I’m happy with the piece. I‘m happy to have done it and know that I could do it.”
And if Pam’s reaction is any indication, Sara deeply understood the assignment.
“Sara saw all these tributes to Kritisin and her space in the front of my garden. She was able to see and feel some of the world I live in, in a very esoteric way. That’s what helped her understand and look at me and say ‘This is where this woman finds her comfort.’”
A Brushes with Cancer Family
Prior to her pairing with Pam, Sara was familiar with the Brushes with Cancer process. Her mother and father are both cancer survivors and her mother, Karen Lee Sobol, participated in the 2021 Northeast Brushes with Cancer program.
Growing up, Sara was surrounded by art. Karen Lee is an artist and architect by training and that influence determined Sara’s own path as she sorted out what she wanted to pursue after college.
“I studied English and creative writing in college, but I took printmaking classes as well. Toward the end of college, I wanted to continue in that direction.”
Since that decision, Sara has been heavily involved in the New York art community, working for artists, galleries and curators.
“It has been a very specific and hands-on education,” she said.
Sara also says her work takes many shapes. While she has the most training in printmaking, she works across a number of mediums. She loves to draw, she makes clothing and has created multiple installations over the past few years. But it’s collaboration that she has become especially passionate about – especially in the social equity space.
“I’m increasingly interested in socially engaged art,” she said. “Merging art and activism and how to work with other people.”
That collaborative aspect – plus Sara’s brush with cancer – is what inspired her to apply as a Brushes with Cancer Artist.
“It’s a difficult project in many ways,” she said. “It’s amazing, but it’s challenging – but I knew I wanted to do it. I’m interested in art as a healing tool and different forms of collaboration, so this seemed like a great opportunity.”