A week after Mardi Kaplan was diagnosed with breast cancer, she left for Morocco.
“Anyone who knows me knows I have major anxiety over packing for trips,” she said. “I put a lot of energy into packing instead of thinking about breast cancer.”
That’s how Kaplan set the tone for her cancer journey: she wasn’t going to let it get in the way of the things that brought her joy.
By continuing on with life, Kaplan had an opportunity to face her diagnosis head on. When she arrived in Morocco, she learned her friends’ flight was delayed. She had the next 12 hours to herself and took advantage of the alone time to process her diagnosis.
“Because my friends weren’t there, I was able to have this beautiful day,” Kaplan said. “I could sit in these beautiful surroundings and read about breast cancer on my iPad for five hours.”
Her friends may have not known it at the time, but their delayed flight ended up being a gift.
“It was so necessary for me and therapeutic to read through the information and get the facts,” she said. “I ate great food and internalized everything I needed to and then I let it go the rest of the trip. It was a great way to pretend everything was OK.”
A month after her Morocco trip, Kaplan went on a yoga retreat in Mexico – this time, with the knowledge a double mastectomy was in her future.
“It was a great way to – in hindsight – have a chance to do yoga twice a day and say goodbye to what my body was. I love doing yoga but my body is different now.”
It was one of three big trips Kaplan took shortly before beginning treatment – trips that may have been intuitive.
“I love to travel but I typically don’t book that many trips all at once,” she said. “I look back and think, maybe I did that knowing I wouldn’t be going anywhere for awhile.”
The perfect pairing
Anna Feneis had participated as a Brushes with Cancer Chicago artist prior but nothing could prepare her for the experience she had with Kaplan.
“Every time I hung up with Mardi, I feel like I could have talked for two more hours,” Feneis said. “I would look at my husband and say ‘I have never felt so safe and natural right off the bat.’”
Shortly after the two connected, Feneis’ father, also an artist, was diagnosed with cancer. If that wasn’t difficult enough to come to terms with, a dear friend was diagnosed for a third time. Feneis was luckily in the right company.
“I don’t know why they paired us, but there was some sort of hand in it,” Feneis said. “Talking to Mardi and learning her story was therapy for me because I could come to her. It was really lucky.”
Feneis was particularly inspired by the way Kaplan handled her cancer diagnosis, treatment and recovery.
“She went on a trip to Morocco right after getting diagnosed!” Feneis said. “That’s what I want my kids to do. I want my daughters to hear something that scares them, do their research, learn about it and move forward.”
A two-sided experience
The two built such a connection they decided to merge both their cancer journeys into one. Feneis took a painting of her father’s, cut it up and used the strips as ferns in her Brushes with Cancer piece for Kaplan.
Feneis – an abstract impressionist – has synesthesia, which means she experiences senses in color. Her synesthesia drives her artistic choices, creating a truly one-of-a-kind artmaking experience.
“Everything comes down to color,” she said. “Emotions – I see them in color. I see people in color, I see letters and numbers in color.”
Feneis made purple, Mardi’s favorite color, dominant in the piece.
“If you look in the background, there are a ton of different colors,” Feneis said. “I wanted that to reflect Mardi’s willingness and openness to exploring.”
The burst of colors across the canvas represent the Tulips that bloom along Michigan Avenue in Chicago.
“In preparation, thousands of bulbs are planted along the road in late October,” Feneis wrote in her artist statement. “Then in April, after what feels like an endless winter submerged by gray skies and temperatures so bitter they make your eardrums hurt, a colorful oasis of flowers surface. People unwrap their scarves and smile as they walk past each other. They start to forget the pain in their ears and snow soaked feet. A new energy takes over and the city comes back to life.”
Due to circumstances with COVID-19, the two did the painting reveal over text message. Upon first look, Kaplan felt a lot of emotion but had a difficult time putting those feelings into words. When she shared it with a friend, she asked Kaplan how she could get to know Feneis.
“I feel like this was such a two-sided experience,” Kaplan said. “Even the piece of art isn’t about me, it’s about our relationship – all the colors and craziness of it.”