Art of Life Cancer Foundation

art of life

Perhaps you’ve seen the new three-acre Healing Garden that was created in Woodward Park. Maybe you’ve seen media coverage or heard about it indirectly from a friend or family member. Or you may be one of the thousands of people in the Central Valley who has been positively impacted by it in some way since it began in 2007. The Art of Life Cancer Foundation is a quietly beautiful force in the Valley that is changing lives every day in immeasurable ways. Many communities have cancer support groups, but Art of Life is something unique and different.Open to all patients, regardless of their oncologist, treatment center or age, Art of Life’s mission is to “inspire people impacted by cancer to connect and heal through creative expression.”

Dr. Christopher Perkins, of California Oncology of the Central Valley, was inspired to create the Art of Life program because he believes that cancer must be treated, not just with medical interventions, but also holistically, by addressing the mind, body and spirit components of survivorship. Based on scientific evidence that shows that art-based interventions are effective in reducing adverse physiological and psychological outcomes for patients with cancer, and that “Healing Art” has been proven to boost the immune system of patients, as well as reduce fear and anxiety, the program allows participants to tell their story and process their journey through art and connection with others. The camaraderie that is formed as a result is both healing, comforting and hope-building.

Art of Life is a movement of hope, initiated by cancer survivors, that is sweeping the Central Valley. Art of Life has several programs, but the newest and most exciting is happening with the approval of the City of Fresno and with the community’s support: the Art of Life Healing Garden. On three acres of Fresno’s own Woodward Park, Art of Life Healing Garden continues to grow and evolve into a place of sanctuary, reflection and celebration.

“We all have lost someone to cancer, and if there’s a way to reduce the pain and suffering of survivors of cancer, war or any other trauma, we want to support those efforts,” says Darius Assemi, CEO of Granville Home and one of Art of Life’s founding partners. 

As a result of overwhelming support from the community, the Art of Life Cancer Foundation was established as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and now provides these life-giving programs year-round. The Foundation currently operates four different programs.

The Art of Life “Paint it Forward” Project links cancer survivors with one another and with local artists to co-create art on canvas that can be viewed publicly and serve to celebrate life and inspire hope. No previous art experience is necessary to participate and the project is free, due to the support of generous donors.

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“The Paula Project” brings past Art of Life participants together, year after year, to experience the joy of healing arts, allowing them to connect and stay connected with one another. It is a joyful event where survivors of all ages gather together, and was made possible by generous donation from Trench Shoring Company, in honor of Paula Doherty, who was one of the first participants in the Paint it Forward Project. Paula, who didn’t have previous experience in creating art, was hugely impacted by Paint It Forward and wanted to see that participants like herself could gather with other survivors in other ways besides Paint It Forward.

“The Community Project” allows thousands of people in the Valley who want to support cancer survivors to be part of creating a unique group art project, by transforming ordinary materials into inspirational, beautiful art that is a testimony of their love and support. The 2015 Community Project was based on that year’s theme, “Flourish,” focusing on the personal growth that is found within the cancer journey. Over three thousand paper circles were colored with images and messages that Artistic Director, Julie Copeland, an artist who specializes in spatial art, transformed into a 3D masterpiece.

“The Art of Life Healing Garden” is an ongoing collaborative project that Art of Life describes as “a place for all those impacted by cancer to celebrate life, hope and renewal.” This special project is a three-acre garden inside of Fresno’s Woodward Park, created through the joint efforts of the Art of Life Cancer Foundation, the City of Fresno, the medical and art communities, local philanthropists and many local volunteers, and is sure to become both a local landmark and legacy. The purpose of this beautiful garden is to provide a physical space in which, as Art of Life says, “cancer survivors, their families and the community can design, build, plant and creatively express what cancer has taught them about the art of living.”

Cancer survivors throughout the Central Valley are credited for the vision of the Art of Life Healing Garden, believing that our community needed a place to not only heal, but to celebrate life. Faculty and students of Fresno State’s Construction Management Program, Horticulture Center, Lyles College of Engineering and The Smittcamp Family Honors College all played a role in the initial efforts of design, while local service groups and businesses donated their time and efforts to pave the way for others to join in this “movement of hope.” No volunteer has been too young or too old to put their mark on this legacy project, and while the initial efforts were inspired by those impacted by cancer, the Healing Garden has been inclusive of, and meant to be enjoyed by, anyone going through hard times.

“The garden has several aspects to it,” explains Art of Life founder, Dr. Christopher Perkins. “One of those is the art that we create, but also there is a ‘living art’ in the garden, and that’s the greenery ... I mean, it’s one of the most beautiful places in Fresno that overlooks the San Joaquin River, the second largest river in the state of California. So, there is both: that human-created art and that God-created art that comes together in the garden. And why is that important? The Art of Life Healing Garden is not established as a memorial garden. If it is a memorial garden, it’s to the death of our old selves, not to the death of a person. You know ... leaving yourself behind a little bit and creating a new person ... I hope that the garden will be for everyone going through a difficult time in life, and that’s not just cancer patients.”

The Cancer Ribbon Trail, the “centerpiece” of the Art of Life Healing Garden, is a ribbon-shaped trail that can be viewed from Google Earth and features natural beauty and art created by cancer survivors. It is also the location of the annual Art of Life Survivor’s Walk.

The Healing Garden also includes, among other elements, a pavilion with a center sculpture, designed exclusively for the Art of Life Healing Garden by Corky Normart, an artist, sculptor, window and furniture designer.

“As I studied the personal stories of cancer survivors, I was inspired to build [a] sculpture, entitled ‘FAMILY, FRIENDS AND FAITH.’ The powerful imagery of open hands acknowledges the beauty of both giving and receiving support,” says Normart about his work.

Another important part of the Garden is the colorful amphitheater, which features tiered seating that is lined with vibrant ceramic tiles created by supporters of Art of Life. These tiles represent or honor someone affected by cancer and depicts images and messages of hope and encouragement.

“On September 6, 2016, I was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma Cancer by Dr. Perkins. My body had multiple fractures, which in turn caused me to spend about 45 days bed-ridden. In April 2017, I had a stem cell transplant at UCSF. I am now CANCER FREE!” says Gina Estrada. “I continue my rehabilitation due to all the muscle atrophy I experienced, as well as all the fractures. Bob and I decided to help Dr. Perkins and his wife, Manuela, with their non- profit Art of Life project, not knowing how it would then help me out with my battle. We have painted tiles for the garden, as well as lined up some pretty major donors. We attend their fundraising events and continue to support in whatever way possible. I personally go to the healing garden at least once a month."

Community members of all ages and walks of life are involved in and have contributed to Art of Life, even young people, not just cancer patients and survivors. Harrison Ewell, a recent San Joaquin Memorial High School graduate, in addition to being an outstanding student and leader, was involved in numerous charities in high school. But he calls the Art of Life Cancer Foundation the organization he is “most passionate about,” and the then- senior successfully completed a campaign last year that raised $10,000 for cancer patients to display their artwork in the 3-acre Healing Garden. He will be attending the University of Colorado Boulder this fall.

“I wanted to do something special to honor my late grandparents, Margi and Bucky Harris, who have been involved from the very beginning of Art of Life as founding partners. I graduated from San Joaquin Memorial in the Class of 2017 and raised the $10,000 from my family and wonderful friends!” explains Harrison.

Art of Life continues to serve the Valley by bringing hope, healing and inspiration to cancer patients, survivors and those who love them, in ways that are both life-changing and unique.

“In over 30 years of practicing medicine, there has been no greater joy than to see my patients experience the Art of Life. The transformation that takes place within each cancer survivor is remarkable and is an important step to not just fight to survive, but to understand how cancer can offer renewed life in a very personal way,” says Dr. Perkins.

For these and countless other reasons, CVLUX has chosen Art of Life as the non-profit that will be given a portion of the proceeds of the annual Luxury Awards on January 26, 2018.

Features Editor Ann T. Sullivan Whitehurst
Managing Editor Cheryl Ensom Dack