Twist Out Cancer Founder and CEO Jenna Benn Shersher had no intention in participating as an Inspiration for Brushes with Cancer’s 10th anniversary. But Artist Kate Van Doren convinced her otherwise.
“I was immediately inspired by Jenna and when I reached out to her initially about her being an Inspiration, she said no,” Kate said. “She said ‘I don’t want to take away from someone else.’”
Kate, however, knew how significant this milestone is for Twist Out Cancer and its founder and reminded her of the courage it took to build an organization while staring cancer right in the face. The fact that Jenna is here, cancer-free, with two beautiful daughters and an organization that has touched over 140,000 globally is momentous.
“Everyone Jenna touches is magic, with her empathy and ability to connect,” Van Doren said. “My goal with my art is to touch others, and that’s what Brushes with Cancer does.”
After Jenna agreed to be a 2021 Brushes with Cancer Inspiration, with Kate as her Artist, the two got down to business. As a 2020 Brushes with Cancer participant, Kate was already familiar with Jenna’s story. There was, however, so much more for Kate to explore.
“When we started meeting, I already knew her story and watched her videos,” Kate said. “I wanted this experience to be less about her illness and more about supporting each other and being mothers and sharing that motherhood experience together.”
Motherhood is a consistent theme throughout Kate’s work. She often uses mothers as her subjects in her art, and also works with mothers in her private practice as an art therapist.
“I am a mother first before I am an artist or wife,” she said. “It is my greatest joy. My kids teach me so much about myself.”
There is always more to heal
Kate knew she wanted to honor Jenna the Mother in her work. She also knew Jenna is a dynamic connector, trusted friend and fierce woman. So, instead of choosing one version of Jenna to honor, Kate created three separate pieces that weave diverse emotions throughout the paint and charcoal.
“I chose to make three pieces to tell her story because I wanted to show the beginning, the middle, and where she is now.”
But the three pieces were just part of the pair’s journey together. Part of Kate’s process is doing in-depth, intimate interviews with every subject she paints or draws. In addition to her time spent speaking with Jenna, Kate did behind-the-scenes research. She’d replay podcasts, YouTube videos and interviews with Jenna.
“It’s the intimate connection that helps me feel closer to them to capture their essence.”
And Kate nurtured the relationship to best represent who Jenna is – not just who Jenna the cancer survivor is. As someone who has experienced loss at cancer’s hands, Kate deeply understands a person is bigger than cancer.
“I really wanted to capture not just who she is now and who people see, because the struggle can get lost when you’re healthy.”
For Jenna, “the now” means leading an organization that has touched more than 140,000 individuals, being a devoted mother and wife and continuing to offer healing experiences to others.
Throughout the Brushes process, the two tried to touch base every week, with Kate being inspired the more the two spoke.
“I just love to hear Jenna talk because she has this beautiful way of connection, and I love the way she explains, highlights people, connects people and brings her ideas to fruition.”
Beginning, middle and now
As she was doing her research, Kate discovered a few reference images that struck her. The first is one of a bald Jenna holding tight to a stuffed animal. It was the moment she learned she was cancer free. This image inspired the charcoal drawing “Within the Quiet.”
“It really spoke to me,” she said. “When you have cancer as a woman, you don’t know if you are going to have children. So much is stripped away and you have to cling onto hope. I chose to draw this because it spoke to me in terms of the struggle women go through that isn’t talked about much. When I saw that photo, I cried and was thinking about Jenna and what an incredible mother she is.”=
This past March, Jenna gave birth to her second daughter, Lou. A feat with its own challenges.
“I watched Jenna get the COVID vaccine while pregnant, have a baby during the pandemic and go on maternity leave while still doing her magic. It felt powerful to me to capture that.”
That strength is what inspired Kate’s second piece, a charcoal drawing titled “We’re Not Done Here.” The reference image was taken the same day Jenna learned her cancer-free news. In stark contrast, Jenna is dressed up, looking straight ahead with determination.
“Jenna is one the most stunning women – she has this grace about her, but she has this fierceness and perseverance.”
For the third piece – an oil painting of Jenna – Kate got in touch with Michele Kellner, the mother of one of Jenna’s best friends to gather more information.
Kate was struck by an image Michele took shortly after Jenna finished her cancer treatment. Jenna’s two best friends took care of her while she was sick and once Jenna started to regain strength, they all went to the beach. The day – and the photo – are incredibly significant to Jenna, so Kate used the scene as a background in “Resilience.”
In front of the beach is a side profile of a content-looking Jenna with her eyes closed, taking in how far she has come in her journey.
After spending years tackling some of life’s toughest obstacles, Jenna chose to move forward with peace and healing. And instead of keeping it to herself, she has opened herself up to the world and made a tremendous impact.
“It is an incredible honor to be a part of this and what she’s created,” Van Doren said. “I’ve never seen a program like it – it’s the epitome of art therapy.”