Art exhibit celebrating cancer survivors invites openness to possibilities at South Coast Plaza

Artist Kamila Kowalke, left, and cancer survivor Cindy Brown at South Coast Plaza.
Artist Kamila Kowalke, left, and cancer survivor Cindy Brown stand behind the letter “O” for “Hope is a Masterpiece” in the Jewel Court at South Coast Plaza on Thursday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

When Cindy Brown learned in the spring of 2014 that she had multiple myeloma, a currently incurable form of cancer, she decided she didn’t want to be defined by her illness. But it became difficult to ignore over the next few months as her hair began to fall out and she found herself spending weeks at a time in treatment.

“I just didn’t want to walk around the world with people looking at me saying, “Oh, that poor lady is dealing with cancer,’” the 56-year-old Coto de Caza resident said. “So, when you lose your hair, it’s obvious, y’know, even if you put a wig on. Because you lose your eyebrows and your eyelashes, and you can only do so much,” she added, chuckling.

But she persevered.

Her story became part of the inspiration for “Hope is a Masterpiece,” a collection of illustrated sculptures spelling out the word hope on display at South Coast Plaza through Sunday, Aug. 28. Abstract artist Kamila Kowalke applied layers of white over vibrant shades of pink and yellow on the upper portion of the letter O and painted the bottom quarter of it with rich green tones. The composition was meant to evoke sensations of a morning sunrise, representing the openness Brown exudes in the face of uncertainty and her own mortality, the artist said.


“Cindy was open to possibilities,” Kowalke said. “She was open to a new day. She was open to anything that would appear before her ... in spite of these challenges that people would find daunting and extremely stressful, because it’s uncertain.”

Brown was 48, and immediately thought of her family when she was diagnosed with cancer and doctors told her she had about five years left. Everything “was on pause” for her in the first few months that followed; she had to stop working and chemotherapy had compromised her immune system, meaning she couldn’t attend most social gatherings.

The "Hope is a Masterpiece" art installation at South Coast Plaza.
“Hope is a Masterpiece,” is set underneath the Jewel Court dome at South Coast Plaza. Debuted in 1973, the dome is made of 7,200 pieces of colorful stained glass.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Brown and her doctors at City of Hope initially struggled to find the most effective care for her. She would respond well to new treatments at first, but later have her optimism grounded when test results showed the number of cancer cells in her body creeping back up.

Today, she is enrolled in a phase-one clinical trial, and no detectable cancer markers could be found in her body as of Thursday, according to her most recent test results. She reports no noticeable side effects from her current treatment.

Brown, who describes herself as an independent person, said it might have been impossible to maintain her optimism if she hadn’t been willing to accept the support of her family, doctors, nurses, friends and even concerned acquaintances. She added that works of art on display at the facilities where she was undergoing chemotherapy could help her gain new perspective on her position in life or just take her mind off of “being a patient.”

The sculptures on display at the South Coast Plaza were commissioned, in part, to celebrate the opening of the City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center, which opened its doors to patients on Monday, Aug. 22.

“We know that art can help heal, and we have filled City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center with stunning works of art,” Annette Walker, president of City of Hope Orange County, said in a statement. “This heartfelt exhibit is a continuation of our commitment to treating the whole person, mind, body and spirit, and recognizing the remarkable courage of our grateful patients.”

Brown and Kowalke said they want their contribution to “Hope is a Masterpiece” to inspire those who see it to face their day-to-day struggles and unforeseen challenges in positive and productive ways.

 Kamila Kowalke, left, and Cindy Brown stand in front of "Hope is a Masterpiece" display.
Artist Kamila Kowalke, left, and cancer survivor Cindy Brown stand in front of “Hope is a Masterpiece” in the Jewel Court at South Coast Plaza on Thursday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Even though Brown still visits regularly with doctors to manage her condition, “I don’t think of myself as a cancer patient,” she said. In between her career in the medical field and time spent with her family, she has become an outspoken advocate for those diagnosed with the disease, especially those who are early in their treatment who may not be aware of the support and resources available to them.

“I love to help people find perspective and be able to help them deal with [their diagnosis], because it’s a lot,” Brown said.

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