Artists Paint a Picture of Cancer


Ms. Kozak helping Claire Cornetet

Cassandra Ratzlaff, Editor

Imagine being stuck in a room for five hours. The room is plain as a canvas; it has absolutely nothing on the walls; the only somewhat interesting thing is a giant fish tank, but you might as well be swimming with them to keep yourself occupied. Nothing against the fish, but there should be more things stimulating. To make these five hours even worse, you’re being constantly examined by nurses and being injected with fluids that doctors hope will help keep you alive. For the most part, you sit there alone with no one to talk to and nothing to interest you. Sounds like a horror movie, right? Wrong. This is chemotherapy: a treatment many cancer patients endure, including ODA art teacher, Ms. Kozak.

Though Ms. Kozak couldn’t change why she was there, she knew she could change what was there. The idea she came up with was to have her Advanced Drawing class paint pictures that reflect the patients’ experience in treatment. She expressed the idea to her class and suggested they begin with interviewing a few of the cancer patients and creating a painting of their story.

This project was the result of a precedent that Kozak set for herself when she was first diagnosed with cancer in 2010. She wanted to include her students and bring her journey to the ODA community. She knew sharing the experience could be a sensitive issue, so she wanted to somehow make it fun. After some discussion with her neighbor, a hair dresser who told her she had a nice head, Ms. Kozak asked a few of her students to paint tribal healing symbols on her head with henna.

Everywhere around ODA she would get comments on her new do, whether that be in class, the hallway, or at the swimming pool–even with the paint running down the side of her face from the hot sun. She said the henna tattoos were “a great way to open up to this thing that is so scary for many and don’t want to talk about it.”

Despite being cancer free for two years, Kozak learned this past fall that the cancer had returned. “I had a gut feeling,” she said. “This time around I wanted to go beyond me and go beyond the bubble of ODA.”

On April 30, Ms. Kozak took advantage of this “teachable moment,” a term she dislikes, and took her Advanced Drawing class to Florida Cancer Specialists where she goes to once a week. Students met with cancer patients for one-on-one sessions to get the details of their experience and begin to visualize their projects.

The students were highly prepped for this assignment. In addition to learning from Ms. Kozak, they watched The Observer and the Observed, a documentary film about perception and experience. The film invites people to rethink stereotypes and create an artistic representation about these presumptions. Brad Bryan, the film maker, came and talked about the process with Kozak’s students. After meeting with the film maker, the students brainstormed questions that they took with them for interviews.

After their visits to the chemotherapy treatment center, the students came back to ODA to reflect on what had happened. Using what they learned from their interviewees, they created multiple thumbnail sketches (mini sketches), deliberately chose one, created it on Photoshop, printed it out, and began.

Although the assignment isn’t due until the Tuesday before exams, Julia Onufrak ’13 finished hers early. With the help of Ms. Kozak, she created a unique painting of a figure staring up at a sunset.


Maria Massaro ’14 chose to paint mountains on a golf course. She said, “the mountains represent triumph and to conquer cancer. David, my guy, loves to golf, and I think that many people will enjoy the simpleness of the golf course.”











Amy Cutmore ’15’created four seasons on a single tree. She came up with the idea after hearing that her partner loves color and nature.


The patient that Meg Phillips ’15 spoke with told her that it’s more important that the painting is interesting than tranquil. He told her that he thought art should be humorous and that he’d like to see some cats on the wall. So, Meg thought about painting some cats looking up at grapes; the painting would get a chuckle out of someone.















On the opposite side of the spectrum, Francisco Marcano-Santos ’15 patient didn’t want a painting that was distracting. Instead, he is drawing a calming lake with plants and sandhill cranes to commemorate where his subject lives.


Sarah Wilcox ’14 based her painting on a description her partner made of cancer; she described everyone in the hospital as if they were on a bus going on a journey to get better. As a result, Sarah drew a bus with the word “hope” on the back traveling down a road to a serene landscape.


Reflecting on the project, Sarah said, “this was a life changing experience to understand more about what cancer is and how it affects people day to day. To see their faces when they see the artwork will be very fulfilling.”

Many of the students agreed that their experience was unexpected. They assumed that they would see frail, dying, depressed cancer patients. But surprisingly enough, it was the opposite.

“He had only one month to live. I wouldn’t think anything was wrong with him,” Meg Phillips ’15 said of her partner.

Ms. Kozak wanted her students to understand what she and other cancer patients have to go through. She said, “it’s a real life experience that is valuable to students. They had the impression that they were depressed, but they were pretty positive and had great attitudes; they were really open and excited.”

Ms. Kozak put herself in a vulnerable position to go forth with this project. It was uncomfortable for her to open up to what she has to go through. However, the end result was a profound experience for all.

“I didn’t know the impact until afterwards,” Ms. Kozak elaborated. But what an impact that was. “Patients will be able to look at something and go somewhere else besides this room. A painting can take [you] to a journey or a memory instead of thinking about what’s going on,” she added.

Once the the paintings are finished, they will be presented at Florida Cancer Specialists in a special celebration of the project. All artwork will become property of the treatment center and be displayed for patients receiving treatments.

In a world where almost all of us are touched by cancer both directly and indirectly, art can provide both a way out and a way in. It can open conversation and take people to better places. The language “teachable moment” really is too small, Ms. Kozak. Thank you for bringing us and others on this journey.