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Paint by wellness: Art classes continue at St. Joseph Hospital’s cancer center

Cancer patient and survivor artwork completed through the Gaze Art program.
Cancer patient and survivor artwork completed through the Gaze Art program offered by St. Joseph’s Hospital.
(Courtesy of Janni Buaiz and Heather Wallace )

Sylvia Valdez said she’s nearing the end of her life — age wise.

The 72-year-old Garden Grove resident is in the mode of retrying all the things she thinks she’d failed in. Art is one of them.

“In elementary school, I would hide my artwork from the nuns and my fellow students, because I could not draw at all,” Valdez said. “It was a disaster, but once I had cancer and decided to join the wellness programs, I have a whole different perspective on life.”

Valdez was diagnosed with lung cancer in spring 2019, underwent surgery and has been free of the disease for the past 16 months. For Valdez, the biggest change in perspective is gratitude for life.

She joined the St. Joseph Hospital’s cancer wellness program, which is a holistic approach to health. It focuses on body weight, nutrition, exercise and lifestyle. The program includes a one-on-one evaluation and plan, weekly or bimonthly check-in sessions, meditative and breathing practices, fitness (aerobics, dance, stretches, yoga and pilates) and the Gaze Art program.

Valdez participates in many of the program’s classes — stretching, mindfulness meditation and art classes. Her ultimate objective is to become a volunteer and spread hope to those who are newly diagnosed with cancer.

While most sessions are offered at the hospital’s Center for Cancer Prevention and Treatment in Orange, COVID-19 prompted classes to move online.

An example of the smile-theme watercolor artwork of the Gaze Art program.
An example of the smile-theme watercolor artwork of the Gaze Art program.
(Courtesy of Janni Buaiz and Heather Wallace )

The latest Gaze Art workshop started in late August over Zoom and will stretch out for six weeks. It’s open to cancer patients and survivors treated at St. Joseph Hospital as well as those in the community. Watercolor art supplies were provided by the center for pickup. The theme, this time around, is smiles.

“I’m finding that even some of the people I work with often, I don’t recognize them [when they are wearing a face mask],” said Janni Buaiz, the hospital’s cancer wellness navigator. “People were feeling very distant and like their smiles were gone. And so we began to think about transposing the idea of a smile.”

Buaiz explained when a patient is newly diagnosed, serious cancer treatments have to be done alone. Families can’t come in and nurses can’t be near patients like they used to. The experience can be isolating.

About 30 people tune in weekly for a session that typically begins with a breathing exercise, moves on to techniques of mixing colors and then a guided mindful meditation before painting begins.

The Zoom meeting has the feel of a support group. Some of the patients know each other and talk about their lives. One woman showed a photo of her families’ newborn. A few others pulled their pets close to their cameras to introduce them to the group.

In the first workshop, participants are tasked with painting a face with a smile and a face mask over it. By the second workshop, they are asked to think about what makes them smile and paint it on top of the sketched face.

A new poetry art exhibit at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton allows visitors to become part of the art.

Iris Ballard, 25, describes herself as a crafty person. She loves art and since the pandemic has started painting at home on her own.

She was diagnosed in 2018 with undifferentiated carcinoma most likely stemming from her ovaries. Prior to the diagnosis she was active in Muay Thai training at a Lake Forest MMA gym she owns with her husband.

Like Valdez, she signed up for multiple classes including the Gaze Art workshop.

She said being creative makes her feel productive.

“There’s people that really need to think about how to take in all the emotion and all of the big things that happen when you’re diagnosed with any catastrophic illness or situation in which you really don’t feel like you’re in control and find a way in which you can begin to get grounded. Art just works,” Buaiz said.

Although Buaiz leads the meditative practices during the workshop, Heather Wallace leads the art portions.

Wallace, who is also a cancer survivor, teachers children and adults art in Rancho Santa Margarita’s Jesus Life private school and has taught through Gaze Art program for about a year.

She said being an art teacher over Zoom is challenging.

Cancer patient and survivor artwork from the Gaze Art program of St. Joseph's Hospital.
Cancer patient and survivor artwork completed through the Gaze Art program offered by St. Joseph’s Hospital.
(Courtesy of Janni Buaiz and Heather Wallace )

“Not only can I not see what they’re making, but it’s really hard to gauge their attitude — whether they’re feeling frustrated or need a little bit of extra help and encouragement,” Wallace said. “The good thing is that everyone’s all in the same boat so we get to overcome these obstacles together.”

The art workshops are typically conducted once a year. However, this year there will be four sessions in total with the help of a donation made to the wellness program.

“Using art provides avenues for growth that wouldn’t normally be there,” Wallace said. “When you take that creativity and put your right brain into it, something just sparks. And by teaching them these little techniques where they can feel successful and confident, I think that really adds to their overall perception of themselves as a person. You go from cancer survivor or sick person to a boost in confidence in who they are and what they can accomplish.”

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