Brushes with Cancer Artist Kathryn Tubbs knows firsthand how ugly disease is. She also knows its potential for beauty.
“I have cancer in my family, and that’s what sparked me doing disease as my topic in art,” she said.
Art has been a core part of Kathryn’s life since she can remember. She attended art school at Northwestern in Chicago and then pursued a master’s degree in art at Long Beach State. During this time, her family faced tragedy that would alter the course of Kathryn’s art career – her four-year-old niece, Kelly, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
“At the time, I was living with my parents, as many of us do in our 20s,” Kathryn said. “My sister just got divorced and also lived with our parents with her three children. We were almost like a village for her.”
The experience prompted Kathryn to experiment with art in new ways.
“It was the first time we had something so traumatic that we all had to come together to help,” she said. “That was always in my mind, so I started doing artwork about it.”
Kathryn shifted her focus and began creating art out of disease. Her pieces use color and abstract imagery to reveal beauty within trauma.
“If I use the same imagery but change the colors to bright colors, I can change the story – and that’s what I’ve stayed with all these years,” she said. “I don’t make art to make people feel horrified, I want happiness in a very tragic situation.”
Part of those colors were inspired by Kelly’s cancer journey and the effects of treatment.
“When Kelly was sick, the things that surprised me were the colors of the chemo and diagnostic images. It just stuck in my mind,” she said. “With chemo, poor little Kelly would throw up and it was neon colors – it was so not what you would expect with the human body. And that stuck with me and started appearing in my art.”
Using art to heal tragedy
Kelly’s diagnosis was the catalyst for Kathryn’s art to be used as a mechanism for healing, and also prepared her to navigate other familial tragedies that were around the corner.
“We’ve had many medical emergencies in my family, and even myself, some bouts with serious illness,” she said. “Almost everyone in my family has a piece of my art for their own issues.”
Over the years, family has been a constant source of support for Kathryn.
“My family is really supportive of my art,” she said. “They always come to my openings and showings. I think my family is super excited for me to find Brushes with Cancer as a venue for my art.”
Recently, her nephew and his wife commissioned a piece that reflects their challenges with conceiving. When the couple received the news of a healthy pregnancy, they wanted Kathryn to honor it through a painting.
“They asked me to do a painting of the gestation at two weeks,” she said. “These commissions always remind me there are so many things people struggle with that you can address through art. Artwork for me has always been my happy place. It is that place where I can put everything on the shelf. It gives my brain a way to disconnect from daily life and go into this other place . I go down this rabbit hole and it relaxes me.”
And the deeper Kathryn went into her work, the more she realized how universal disease was for people.
“It’s interesting to me how common it is for people to struggle with illness and disease,” she said. “You don’t hear about it on a day-to-day basis. They don’t bring it to work and they don’t talk about it with friends.”
Every match is different
When Kathryn was introduced to Twist Out Cancer and its signature program, Brushes with Cancer, she immediately knew it was a perfect match.
“As soon as I read the description I was like, ‘That describes my work already,’” she said.
So far, Kathryn has completed two Brushes with Cancer programs as an Artist and is planning a third time in 2023.
“Both Inspirations I’ve worked with have been women,” Kathryn said. “They were instant connections – a very giggly, girlfriend-like experience. I had so many things in common with both of them, which is strange because we are in different parts of the country, we are different ages and have different lives.”
Kathryn’s first year as a Brushes with Cancer Artist was the 2021 Northeast program in Philadelphia. She was matched with Inspiration Bobbie Tiedt Donohew, a fellow artist whose creativity became renewed when paired with Kathryn.
“The really cool thing about Bobbie is she’s an artist as well but hadn’t done it in many years,” Kathryn said. “In working together, she got started with art again. Now, she sells more of her art than I do!”
For the 2022 Midwest program, Kathryn was paired with Inspiration Michaela Hernandez. The two experiences were completely different, however, Kathryn formed two unique lifelong relationships with both women.
“It’s interesting to see the Inspirations’ different personalities,” she said. “With Bobbie, sometimes I felt like I didn’t want to pull things out of her – I wanted to let the questions sit, and when she was comfortable talking about certain things, she would.”
For Kathryn’s second match, she had a different experience.
“With Michaela, I didn’t even have to ask questions,” Kathryn said. “She was so excited she had someone she could tell these various things to. I appreciate when my connections’ personalities are different and we can create different experiences.”
But at the end of it all, the goal is still the same: create a meaningful experience and beautiful art for someone touched by cancer.
“I want them to be able to have something that is visually beautiful and happy,” Kathryn said. “If they wanted to share that story, they could point to it and say ‘This is my cancer,’ or they could not talk about it and just have a beautiful painting on the wall. You don’t know it’s organs. It can start a conversation but it can exist on its own.”