Hippo Manchester
October 13, 2005

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Arts: Fighting cancer with creativity

As part of her bout with illness, painter finds art leads to more life

By Michelle Saturley   msaturley@hippopress.com

When artist Susan Wood Reider learned she had breast cancer, her first instinct was to stop creating art. The Tennessee native focused so intensely on surviving the treatment for her disease that art took a back seat for about a year.

Then one day, Reider was sitting in her oncologist’s office and noticed how dull and drab the waiting room was. The wheels of creativity started turning in Reider’s mind again.

Reider procured a grant from the Cultural Alliance of Greater Knoxville, Tenn., and began reaching out to medical professionals, breast cancer patients and other survivors. She soon launched an exhibit entitled “Strange Gifts: Honoring the Journey.” The display won the Blair Sadler International Healing Arts Award.

“That project started out for me as a way to channel what I was feeling about my illness into something creative, but it turned out to be so much more,” Reider said.

What the art healing project became, in essence, was a way for Reider and other women to go public with their illnesses and show the world that they were not about to give up on their lives, and to show through their art how surviving the illness had transformed them for the better. The exhibit garnered so much attention that when Reider moved to New Hampshire in 2003, she sought out a way to organize a similar project in Concord.

“That’s when I met Pam [Tarbell, owner of Mill Brook Gallery], and when I told her about my idea, she said she had been kicking around a similar idea for a long time,” said Reider. “Once I saw her gallery and her studio space, I knew there was no other place I could do this.”

Last October, to observe Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Tarbell recruited other artists who were also breast cancer survivors and mounted the very first exhibit of “Moving On…A Breast Cancer Survivor’s Exhibit.” The show was a huge success, but it was also bittersweet for Reider.

“It was during that time that I got my second diagnosis of breast cancer,” she said.

It was also during that inaugural show that Tarbell’s close friend, Inga Dinter, also of Concord, broke the news about her own diagnosis. Dinter was a holistic healer at the time, but she had once been a goldsmith while living in her native Germany.

“That diagnosis just blew me away,” Tarbell said. “It was too close to home for me. I had been dealing with the subject matter with these artists I was working with, and that was moving and terribly difficult for me, but when Inga came to me during that show and told me about her own diagnosis,  … it was too difficult.”

The events that transpired around that show were so powerful that Tarbell decided to mount a new show for 2005. “Moving On…A Breast Cancer Survivor’s Exhibit II” opened Sept. 27 at the Mill Brook Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Concord. Reider is returning for the exhibit, showing both the art she created for the original show and a new series of pieces she created since receiving her second diagnosis.

“I think my work after the second diagnosis became more quiet, more introspective, because that is where I’m at now,” Reider said.

Dinter was so inspired by the original show that she began working as a goldsmith again. She crafted several pieces of jewelry for the new show.

“One of the things I like so much about making jewelry is that it is usually kept for life,” Dinter said. “In a way, coming back to being a goldsmith was like coming back to myself.”

Dinter’s approach to creating jewelry has changed since battling cancer.

“I just do what I can do, and that’s all,” she said. “I make pieces that I would like, or that I think my friends would like. I’m not so worried about anything else. It’s much more simple.”

Rounding out the roster of artists are Portsmouth-based sculptor and painter Judith Shah, Windham-based mask-maker Sandy Sorter and Boston-based collage artist Laura Davidson. Dinter says the women have become very close, even though their experiences and the art that came out of those experiences are very different.

“Everyone handles her diagnosis differently,” she said. “Some women are quiet about it. They want to keep it to themselves. Some women want to tell everyone they know, because they are angry, or they need support, or they want other women to know about this disease so they can take care of themselves.”

“It’s such a pervasive condition,” Reider said. “It touches so many lives. I’m sure if people sat down and thought about it, they know at least one woman — a friend, a family member, a co-worker, maybe a friend of a friend — who has had breast cancer.”

All of the works in this exhibit are for sale. A percentage of sales from the show will be donated to the Breast Care Center of Concord. The Mill Brook Gallery and Sculpture Garden is located at 236 Hopkinton Rd. in Concord. For more information, call 226-2046, or visit themillbrookgallery.com.