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Cancer survivors celebrate healing through art

Splashes of yellows, greens, oranges and blues have colored the lower floor lobby of El Camino Hospital last month, where paintings created by cancer survivors have been exhibited as part of an ongoing art show entitled "Symphony of Color."

The art show displayed a collection of work from El Camino Hospital's "Creative Expressions: Painting Classes for Cancer Survivors" class, in which all students are cancer patients undergoing various stages of treatment and recovery.

Art therapist Tehlia Eisenstat said she has taught the class for 12 years to offer cancer patients the opportunity to use art as a method of healing. According to Eisenstat, students can escape the difficulties of their illness through the joys of painting.

"Some therapies use your pain and your scars. What I do is introduce color, shapes and beauty," Eisenstat told the Voice. "There is enough ugliness in the world, as Renoir said. We don't need to contribute more. By learning (to paint), you move on."

The recent show featured 30 student paintings (31 in total, as Eisenstat always throws in one of her own), each a slightly different depiction of the same colorful scene: aspen trees in a clearing. When displayed together in the hospital lobby, each painting came together into a larger picture, a forest of aspen trees for viewers and passersby to enjoy.

Eisenstat coordinates public showings of her class' artwork at least once, if not twice, each year. This show, "Symphony of Color," was the first public showing of the class' artwork in 2014, and students began work on their exhibited pieces in the fall of 2013.

Current students in Eisenstat's class -- who range in age from 20 to 90 -- entered with all levels of painting experience. They "dive right into" the challenge of learning to paint, developing painting skills through Eisenstat's guidance, demonstrations, and an environment of encouragement, she said.

"I first walked in and Tehila gave me a paintbrush, a canvas, and some paints. I sat down and said, 'What am I doing?'" said Barbara Capron, who has attended Eisenstat's class for six years. "I have surprised myself so much, because of the energy in the room. That painting is now hanging on my wall."

Jane Gibson, who has attended the class for four years, echoed Capron's sentiment and noted the transformative nature of learning to paint.

"Everyone says you look at the world differently, once you have started painting," said Gibson. "You see a tree, and it is not just a green tree, it's many shades of green."

Art therapy in painting, Eisenstat explained, is often rooted in color -- making the recent show's title, "Symphony of Color," rather fitting.

"I stick to colors, I study them," Eisenstat said. "Certain colors irritate you, certain colors can welcome you. Certain colors you don't use when you are doing radiation. There is a lot about it."

Eisenstat also mentioned that the subject of a painting can sometimes resonate, subtly, with students' experiences. "The leaves fall down, but then they grow back, like hair," she said. "And the strength of standing tall and strong. Everything has meaning, there."

But for both Eisenstat and her students, the class is more about art than cancer. According to Gibson, the class's therapeutic benefit is gained by "leaving cancer at the door."

"It was just so wonderful to go into a room where you knew other people have had the same experiences, and yet, you didn't need to talk about it," said Gibson. "To me, it was a nice way to get away from my cancer."

Capron described a moment when, while washing their paintbrushes over the sink, she and a fellow classmate discussed what to do when losing their hair from chemotherapy.

"I was just past my surgery when I went to this class. I didn't know anybody else who had been through this," Capron said. "We didn't have a big class discussion or anything, but it was very helpful. There was that support, for which I was very thankful."

Painting is now my thing. It gets into your soul, or your blood, or something," Gibson said. "It has meant so much to me, and has been a major part of my recovery."

Information about the class and upcoming art shows are online at elcaminohospital.org or by calling the El Camino Hospital Cancer Center at 650-988-8338.

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