Glencoe native Jenna Benn Shersher was only 29 years old when she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer called grey zone lymphoma. Upon completing treatment, Benn Shersher wanted to help others affected by cancer and founded Twist Out Cancer, an international nonprofit charitable organization that provides psychosocial support to cancer survivors and their loved ones through creative arts programming. An offshoot of Twist Out Cancer, Brushes with Cancer is a program that pairs those impacted by cancer (survivors, previvors and caregivers) with an artist who in turn creates a piece of artwork representing their journey.
Benn Shersher was initially inspired to create Brushes with Cancer after her friend Anna Swarthout was also diagnosed with grey zone lymphoma. Swarthout uploaded a video of herself during treatment, asking others to create art that did not use the shade of gray because gray was all she was seeing. Within days, hundreds of people had created art in her honor. “We had a mural painted in Switzerland, dances in Harlem, sculptures in Toronto,” says Benn Shersher. “It was because of her challenge to the community and the incredible responses that we started to think about how the creative arts could be used as a mechanism to both raise awareness, connecting individuals touched by cancer, and aid in healing.”
Breast cancer survivor Grace Lombardo found that being involved in Brushes with Cancer as an “inspiration” allowed her to tell her story and see it reflected back through someone else’s eyes. “This outside perspective has been able to validate my feelings as they relate to my cancer odyssey,” she says. “The sadness is real, the pain is real, but the healing, both physical and emotional, is also real.”
After connecting in person, by phone or through email, the artist creates a one-of-a-kind piece of art that represents the subject’s experience. The process spans six months so the artist can truly get to know the individual’s full story.
“As an artist, it’s incredible to bring someone’s experience with cancer to life though a piece of art,” explains artist David Turok. “The process is therapeutic — for a survivor to put their story out there, and equally for me to get a perspective for how challenging the fight with cancer can be. After having one friend recently overcome a battle with leukemia and losing another friend to breast cancer before I was able to show her the final art piece depicting her story — I don’t know how else I would be able to deal with the heaviness of these situations without the support of the Brushes and Twist community.”
Artist Neely Benn created a photo masterpiece for her inspiration, Megan Milano, caregiver to her mother who lost her battle with breast cancer two years ago. Milano found that Brushes with Cancer played a healing role in her grieving process. In turn, Benn felt that she was given the opportunity to create meaningful art about resilience and bravery, an opportunity that also allowed her the space to reflect on her own experiences.
“What started as a small art exhibition for 20 artists and inspirations has now become an international program that has impacted over 15,000 people,” says Benn Shersher. Brushes with Cancer currently runs in Chicago and Ann Arbor, and in 2018, will grow to include Philadelphia, Montreal and Tel Aviv. By the end of 2018, it’s anticipated that more than 20,000 people will have been touched by the program.
You can view these gorgeous, moving works of art in person at the Fifth Annual Brushes with Cancer Exhibition and Gala, featuring live music, food and open bar. Fifty-four works of art will be on display and up for auction. The event takes place Saturday, Sept. 9, at 6 p.m. at Revel Fulton Market, 1215 W. Fulton Market in Chicago. Tickets can be purchased online. General admission tickets are available for $125 and VIP tickets are available for $175.
If you’re interested in becoming involved with Brushes with Cancer, please reach out to Benn Shersher at [email protected].
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Jenny Muslin, Beauty Editor at Make It Better, has been writing for the magazine for seven years. She has also written for Chicago Parent, NS Modern Luxury, Red Tricycle, Stroller Traffic, and is a contributor for beauty app PrettyQuick. When she isn’t writing, she’s chasing after her 3 year old son or trying to keep her eyes open after a late night feeding with her new baby girl.