116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Home / Life
Chemotherapy temporarily took away Pamela Crouch's ability to express herself in words. For a writer, that was devastating.
'I lost my nouns,' she said. 'I developed aphasia. They call it 'chemo brain.' I could look at a cup, I knew it was a cup, but I could not say the word. My husband became really good at charades, and it was hilarious, because after a while, he would just tell me what I wanted and I couldn't remember it anyway, so I was like, 'OK.'
'It eventually went away or became less, although when I become absent-minded now, I go, 'Blame the chemo.''
But Crouch of Moline, Ill., isn't playing the blame game in real life. She was in her 40s in 2008 when hit with the double whammy of breast cancer and melanoma. She and her husband had a daughter in junior high and a son in high school. All would travel this frightening path with her.
She knew she had to find a higher purpose, so she turned to her higher power.
'When I got cancer and saw what it was doing to my family, I said, 'Alright God, what am I supposed to do with this? I know you've got something planned.''
She couldn't continue her marketing job, because she couldn't remember her clients or their products. Likewise, journaling was out as a coping mechanism, since anything she wrote would have been 'a rambling mess of words,' she said. 'I couldn't remember my name, let alone journal.'
She found her new purpose through art, which led to co-founding the nonprofit Living Proof Exhibit, which is bringing 'Living Proof: Visualization of Hope' to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art from Saturday to Dec. 31. The exhibit features 23 juried art pieces created by male and female cancer survivors living within 200 miles of the Quad Cities, including several from the Corridor and Eastern Iowa.
The works showcase a variety of disciplines, from painting and photography to handmade paper, written word, metalwork, jewelry and an afghan. Related programming includes a documentary film screening in October, a hands-on session in November and an art therapy discussion in December.
The project grew by chance, not design.
'Here I am,' Crouch thought. 'I'm unemployed. I'm chubby — round-faced from all those steroids — I can't remember a thing and I'm feeling sorry for myself. But then, just the way I was raised, I thought, 'Knock it off. You're supposed to be a creative person.' One of my degrees is in theater.
'And that's when I went to a hobby shop.'
Wandering the aisles, she knew she had to find something to do with her hands. That's when she spotted birdhouses.
'I started painting them,' she said. 'I'm not a painter, but I can paint little birdhouses white, with pink roofs, and put little dots on them, and I gave them away to other newly diagnosed breast cancer patients.
'Along the way, I discovered two things: One, my parents had always taught me (when) you do for others, it comes back to you and gives you peace in your heart. And the other is that you can't be sad when you're painting little houses — it's impossible.
'I didn't know it at the time, but I was using one of the basic principles of art therapy. For me, it gave me a respite, it gave me a time to calm. My hands were busy, so my mind and heart could calm and my body could heal because I wasn't projecting all that stress. I was just putting it all out there on the little birdhouses and sending them on their way.'
She made about 20 happy houses, but has since expanded her artistic reach, channeling her love for words and art into collage and mixed media.
'I'm doing more storytelling through the arts — but I still have a box full of birdhouses,' she said.
She also gained a full-time 'part-time' job in 2014: executive director of Living Proof Exhibits. With an office in Moline, but no brick-and-mortar building, the program offers an annual exhibition of artwork created by cancer survivors; free art therapy sessions at various sites in the Quad Cities and Muscatine, for people touched by cancer themselves or their families; and programs that put healing puzzles and coloring books into the hands of cancer patients, to give them a creative outlet during treatments.
'We're a traveling troupe service organization, so we go where we're needed,' she said.
The project began in March 2010, when Crouch 'bounced up' to Mary Ellen Cunningham at a breast cancer support group in the Quad Cities.
'I said, 'I used art, you use art — we should put on a show.' I can't believe she didn't run away,' Crouch said with a laugh.
Instead, they both ran full-steam, mounting their first Living Proof Exhibit in October 2010 at the Bucktown Center for the Arts in Davenport. They planned to expand into art therapy in five years, but offered a class the next month — and have been on the go ever since.
The organization was granted 501(c) 3 nonprofit status in November 2015. A board of directors was recruited, which Cunningham serves on commuting between Chicago and Rock Island. The board has helped move Living Proof from a grass-roots effort to one with a business model, accounting, governance and a projected budget of $57,000 this year that enables them to reach 7,700 people.
'We're able to reach out to partners in a more professional manner,' Crouch said, enabling them to pursue local and regional funding.
Crouch is thrilled to be expanding their reach into the Corridor.
Every other year, works are displayed at Davenport's Figge Art Museum, alternating with sites in other cities, including the Peoria Library in 2015.
'This is our first time in Cedar Rapids,' she said. 'I applaud the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art — I know it was a leap of faith for them. I'm ecstatic about bringing awareness of the healing power of art, so yea Cedar Rapids.'
The museum is stepping outside its norm by showing pieces by non-professional artists, as well as working artists from the region. It also highlights a realm Kate Kunau, the museum's associate curator, hasn't studied.
'It's going to be a really interesting learning experience for me,' she said, noting that she's studied art history, but not art therapy.
'I know how calming it can be to do art projects, because it's something you have complete control over,' she said, 'so when your health is outside of your control, I can absolutely understand how that's very calming.'
Kunau was one of three jurors who selected the pieces for the Cedar Rapids exhibit.
'I was very excited about the high quality of things that were submitted,' she said. 'Some are from women who are practicing artists (and) some are from people who just did art projects while they had cancer. I think it's really cool that it's a blend of those.
'And I like that some of the art deals with cancer specifically,' she said, while other pieces are more abstract and reflect the way in which the artists processed their disease. 'It's a really interesting look at art therapy. ...
'And there's a lot of opportunity for programming that we wouldn't otherwise have,' she said.
ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
Art therapy has opened unexpected doors for Crouch, as well, with her new career proving to be one of the silver linings in her cancer journey. (The other was discovering skin cancer on her scalp that wasn't visible until her hair fell out, which otherwise would have gone untreated.)
This job has been the answer to those early prayers about helping her find God's plan for her life in the wake of cancer.
'Would I have done this particular job without cancer? I believe you can do it,' she said, 'but I also know that when the artists are dropping their work off to me, and we take those moments and we talk and we catch up, there's an understanding I have because I've been there. So for me, I'm incredibly grateful.
'I love what I do. I live with gratitude,' she said.
[naviga:h3 style="padding-left: 60px;"]IF YOU GO
What: 'Living Proof: Visualization of Hope'
Where: Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE, second-floor gallery
Features: 23 works of art by cancer survivors living within 200 miles of the Quad Cities
When: Saturday to Dec. 31
Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday; noon to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
Admission: $7 adults, $6 college students and ages 62 and older, $3 ages 6 to 18, free ages 5 and under and museum members
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org