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Art aids Country Day teacher in struggle with cancer

The title of the exhibition is “Visual Diary: A Year of Reflection,” and if there was a subtitle, perhaps it would be “The Physical, Emotional and Spiritual Fallout of Breast Cancer.”

Ann Chaitin’s collection of 28 mixed media and collage pieces was unveiled at a reception held Sept. 11 at the Jacobs Family Library/Academic Center on the campus of La Jolla Country Day School, 9490 Genesee Ave. The show will remain open until Oct. 12.

A La Jolla resident and art teacher at Country Day for more than 27 years, Chaitin was diagnosed with breast cancer on her birthday in July 2005 following a routine mammogram. Within days, she’d returned for a biopsy and lumpectomy. Once healed from the surgery, she began radiation treatment. While brief – only 10 or 15 minutes – the sessions lasted five days a week for seven weeks.

During treatment, Chaitin, married to a dermatologist and mother of three, continued teaching. Only a handful of friends and co-workers knew the dramatic, life-altering experience she was going through. Even Chaitin, who was immersed in the frightening world of cancer, treatment and medical technology, remained focused on the normalcy of daily life.

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However, ever an artist, she doodled images and notations on her ever-present sketch pad when she discovered unexpected inspiration in the clinical setting around her.

There was unlimited inspiration, but only an artist would see it: the blue radioactive dye that glowed green when it hit sentinel cancer cells among her lymph nodes; three small blue tattoos technicians used as markers to line up the radiation machine; the laser grid that burned red during her treatment.

“I found that there were a lot of colors and shapes and images that fascinated me, and if this wasn’t me [being treated], this would be pretty cool,” she said. “I concentrated less on being fearful and more on this visual stuff that was happening.”

Six months after completing her regimen of radiation therapy, Chaitin began a year-long leave of absence. Scheduled well before her cancer diagnosis, she had planned to use the time to focus on her own artwork and complete a book of student artwork related to a course she teaches on intolerance. The sabbatical turned out to be much more introspective.

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“I had this whole year with a lot of quiet time,” she said.

Without the distractions of career and illness, Chaitin returned to her sketchbook. One of her earliest observations was the rough-edged cancer cells among smooth, healthy cells. Above a jagged circle, she had written, “Rough edges are bad.”

As she began experimenting with this new creative model, Chaitin’s artwork evolved. Previously she painted and drew realistic and Impressionistic-style pieces. Now she used handmade papers, watercolors, ink and found objects. Her pieces became smaller, and many elements were circular. Perhaps symbolic of cells or breasts, Chaitin mused.

The organic and cellular composition of the paper appealed to Chaitin, as did the ability to use the material to create layers and textures.

She compares the layers of paper to the layers of people’s personalities. In her own case, there were the outer layers of everyday life while underneath, the layers of fear and uncertainty linked to the cancer.

This complexity requires viewers to pause and closely examine each piece in order to fully appreciate the composition of it, possibly an unintentional reminder from Chaitin to stop and smell the roses.

With titles such as “Night/Before” and “Blue Tattoos,” each piece in the exhibition marks the time line of Chaitin’s journey from diagnosis to recovery. Much of the early work is staccato, the colors dark and anxious. The compositions become progressively more peaceful.

The last two pieces, “Dusk” and “Dawn” reflect Chaitin’s experience with the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer 3-Day walk, completed in November 2006. By this time, Chaitin had come to terms with her own cancer and absorbed it into her life experience. No longer a crisis, no longer a victim of unwanted sympathy, no longer bound to a regimen of healing radiation, the cancer had marked Chaitin but not changed her.

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Without her artwork, Chaitin said it would have been much harder to move on with life. Creating each piece allowed her to distill all of her feelings, the end result being a positive affirmation.

“Having a creative outlet, no matter what it is, is an incredible gift and can be a tremendous comfort,” she said.

Chaitin felt it was imperative to let viewers know her experience with cancer was the momentum behind the exhibit, but she didn’t want the show to be a downer. Instead, she wanted to reveal the healing power of art.

“People needed to know where [I] was coming from,” she said. “The more personal art is, the louder it speaks to the many.”