Lisa Rutledge sits in a studio at the Fresno Art Museum critiquing a triptych she made with two other breast cancer survivors, Christine Frick and Susan Heiberger. Three yellow panels collaged with pictures, painted symbols and cutout phrases like "Pick me up." That's one Rutledge used to represent her loyal friends.
"They actually had a 'say goodbye to the ta-tas' party for me because I had a bilateral mastectomy. So, we had this big going-away party for 'em," she says.
Rutledge was diagnosed with breast cancer last year at age 36, one month after she left an abusive marriage. She buried her feelings about cancer until recently.
"It's been a hard couple weeks. I'm happy because I need to get the feelings out. I think this art project actually helped me open up the feelings that I had kind of suppressed about cancer because I kind of just didn't think about it," she says.
Her project is part of The Art of Life Project, which links breast cancer survivors with local artists to create works on canvas.
A piece titled "The Melody of Three Warriors" hangs in the hallway at California Oncology, Fresno.
Dr. Christopher Perkins and his staff at California Oncology in Fresno started The Art of Life five years ago to give women an opportunity to tell their stories and build camaraderie.
It's typical, Perkins says, that breast cancer is just one of many things patients manage - there's child care, for instance, aging parents, even divorce.
"The more you juggle, the less time you have to really be reflective and take that pause," he says. "And The Art of Life allows patients to take that pause."
The project has grown each year and includes a group for Spanish speakers and one for women who are deaf. But the unifying theme is survivorship, says Perkins.
"From the moment they enter into it. It's not at the very end," he says. "Survivorship starts, breast cancer starts the day that needle is put into the breast and the diagnosis is made."
This year, 55 survivors worked in small groups under the guidance of 15 established artists. Painter Leslie Batty helped Rutledge, Frick and Heiberger on their collages. She, too, is a breast cancer survivor.
One of Batty's own paintings, now hanging in an exhibit at the Fresno Art Museum, shows a series of shapely women with tiny waists and fashionable dresses meant to resemble the women on vintage sewing-pattern packages.
"When people first came to the exhibit they thought, 'Oh look, there's vintage patterns,' and then they got up close and then they went, 'Oh,' " she says.
Batty loosely painted the figures over the pre-op drawings her surgeon made when he was describing the options and risks of her reconstructive surgery four years ago after a double mastectomy. The title is "Illustrated Instructions for Sewing, Altering and Cutting."
"It has an effect of that feeling of wanting to be this, you know, wanting to look like a woman, slender and shapely, and then having all of this sort of really happening in your psyche," says Batty. "It's just a very psychologically difficult experience to go through."
Survivor Susan Heiberger knows just how difficult it is. She got her diagnosis only two months after she gave birth to a baby boy. Her other son was only 20 months old. She had a double mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy and breast reconstruction.
The Art of Life was a good diversion, she says, but she didn't realize how meaningful her collage of painted flowers, pictures and words was until she examined the finished product.
"Wow, there's a lot of meaning to my whole journey there," she says, looking at her work. "Just words like love, live, life."
Heiberger says she was hesitant at first with her paintbrush and had trouble making a flower stand out.
During one of their sessions, she told Batty her flower looked like a blob. Batty told Heiberger the way to get the flower to stand out was to paint darker colors where the shadows should be.
Batty held up a living flower to Heiberger and told her, "When you put the highlights in, they don't really pop unless you have the shadows in there next to them." Batty says this contrast of highlights and shadows is a metaphor for her own experience with breast cancer.
"Having those highlights next to those shadows, it just made me value the simple things in life so much more," she says.
Many of The Art of Life projects hang in the halls of California Oncology in Fresno. Leslie Batty's paintings, part of an exhibit of up-and-coming artists called Breakthrough, can be seen at the Fresno Art Museum through April 28.