Why I stepped away from my public art making-and-sharing life, and why I am now ready to come back

Writing this post is going to be tough because as I type these words I’m not yet through the most difficult challenge life has presented me with thus far, and who wants to read a story that’s only about a third of the way over AND has yet to resolve itself as either a heart warming or heart wrenching tale? 

Honestly, I like stories that dare to walk the line between those two emotional states the best, but that is neither here nor there. I’m simply stalling because even after three months of living this new reality of mine I’m still not use to saying or typing the words that I know I have to share in order to move back into my public art making-and-sharing life. 

So…here goes: my beautiful, amazing, talented, creative, passionate, hardworking, driven, intelligent, stylish, dedicated, funny, caring (and not necessarily in that order) child, Samuel, has cancer; stage three papillary thyroid cancer to be exact. 

A sketchbook rests on a mother’s lap with a pencil and eraser resting on top of a drawing of her child lying in a hospital bed covered with tubes, a breathing mask, and heavy blankets. The patient is sleeping in the drawing.
This is a snapshot from the longest night
of my life that I sent to my partner, Steve to
let him know that I was okay.
As July 2023 began, our son, Sam, had major
surgery to remove his thyroid and 36 lymph
nodes. Only one parent was permitted to stay
with Sam in ICU, and I was that parent (Steve
went home to calm our four stressed out felines
who definitely knew something was not okay with
their trio of people). Terrified and alone, I kept vigil
at my son’s bed side through the night, remaining
calm and ready for whatever he needed, 
the only way I know how—by sketching what I saw.

And ever since Sam’s diagnosis came into our lives three months ago I’ve been unable to engage the world beyond my little trio family and the small collection of friends and family that have been supporting us through this nightmare. 

The thought of continuing to share my art and ideas with the lovely folks who engage my colorable and traditional artwork here on my website, on social media, on my YouTube channel, and through my newsletter while my partner, Steve, and I helped our child through his difficult health journey was more than my already overwhelmed brain could process. I couldn’t see how to possibly keep my accounts going with new colorful ideas and experiences and not acknowledge the inspiration behind each of these fresh creative moments; that inspiration being that my son, Samuel, had been diagnosed with cancer (I have been relying heavily on my creativity and studio practice to help me process what it means to be the parent of a 23 year old cancer patient). It’s a bit ridiculous, I know, but I couldn’t stand the idea of being the bearer of shockingly bad news to all the people who turn to my work for creative inspiration, a bit of humor, and a whole lot of color—it seemed sort of a violation of the unspoken contract between myself and my audience. I’m moderately comfortable (never fully comfortable, but I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that as an introvert I never will be) with the attention I receive being an artist in the world, but thinking of all the attention I would undoubtedly receive when people learned that my only child had cancer (folks who love to color and make art are a caring group)…well, it made me feel like a deer in headlights—completely immobile, without coherent thought, and doomed. Because of this I decided as a self-employed person to give to myself what a good employer gives to their employees when the unthinkable happens: family medical leave from the social-sharing demands studio artists have and from any projects I was currently working on that felt like more focus than my brain effectively could muster.

Y’all might be asking then why share this difficult news publicly now if it makes me so incredibly uncomfortable? Because, as my Sam just said when he came into my studio to check on me and see how this post was coming along, this experience is changing me, changing my art, changing everything (“I am not the same musician during this and I won’t be the same after this is over, mom, and you are not the same artist—how could you be?”).

A sketchbook with a pencil and watercolor drawing of a patient in a hospital lies open on a table. It is surrounded by four colorful apples, a cup of coffee, and various art studio items.
Sam’s cancer diagnosis meant he had to put graduate school on hold
and return home for surgery, treatment, and recovery,
what’s turning out to be a year long process. And that means
that I no longer work from home alone. Somehow sensing the tension
in my studio (this short blog post took me forever to work my way
through), Sam secretly went to make me one of my favorite
styles of coffee—a cafΓ© Cubano. “To help you write, mom.”
This cancer journey has had many valleys, but it has had
its fair share of peaks, too.

And, my child is correct: to move forward in my career as an artist, writer, and teacher without acknowledging the awful truth that cancer has come into our lives and reshaped them like an angry gardener violently pruning unruly hedges would not only be inauthentic (and I mean that in the truest definition of the word, not in the loose-y goose-y social media way), but also impossible. All the art I’ve been making (the colors I’ve splashed onto paper, the lines I’ve scratched into sketchbooks), all the ideas I’ve been exploring (the future coloring book concepts, the possible video tutorials and series) over these last three months have been informed by the life I’ve been forced to lead, the life of a parent whose child suddenly has cancer in a big way (don’t even get me started on how the medical community talks to cancer patients and their families—I didn’t come up with the label “big cancer,” one of Sam’s doctors did, an excellent physician who also happens to be a questionable communicator). 

And, to be honest with you, I don’t think that is a bad thing. I’m quite proud of the work I’ve been able to do this summer and very excited about the ideas that have bubbled up inside me as I’ve camped out in hospitals, sat in doctor’s waiting rooms, and, quite frankly, stared off into space trying to pull myself together every couple of days or so (It’s when I dare to let myself think about the future that the intensity and gravity of our situation begins to swallow me whole—loving someone going through cancer treatment demands that one stay squarely in the now—and just staring out a window or even at a wall without focus for a few minutes, tuning in to my breath and and relaxing my shoulders, pulls me back to where I need to be. I’m sure I look totally wackadoodle as I’m doing in it—and, yes, I’ve done it in public—but I absolutely don’t care).

A pencil and watercolor wash illustration of a seriously ill young man lying in a hospital bed lies on a brown table. There is a paintbrush sitting just above the sketchbook.
When Samuel was finally released from the hospital
and we had discovered a rhythm to our new 
normal at home, I opened this sketchbook to see how
I felt about this pencil sketch that got me through
the worst night of my life. Turns out the drawing
reminded me not that Sam had cancer,
but instead reminded me of the great
resilience of my son’s body and, surprisingly (to me, at least)
of my determination to not give in to fear and despair.
But it was not finished—I felt the need to add the
colors that surrounded us in the hush
of the ICU at night. I also considered adding some ink
to better define my pencil lines. But in the
end, my trusty HB pencil work felt like it
expressed the moment too perfectly to touch,
and so this piece will remain as it is.

With Sam officially a month and a half post-surgical this week (continuing to heal well from his dramatic thyroidectomy and lymphadenectomy—an 8 hour surgery!) and due to have targeted radiation right before a new semester of formal art education starts for me (at this point I’m still planning to take two classes at Texas Lutheran University this fall—Painting II and Printmaking I), I’m beginning to feel like it’s time to think about returning to a more structured way of being in the world and in my studio, albeit one that is also open to the idea that any plans I make may have to change or be discarded—our new normal is all about remaining flexible to the schedules and directions of the medical community working to heal my son (and when I get frustrated with this supreme lack of control and information, I repeat this mantra over and over until I can breathe easy: Be the water, not the rock, Michelle; be in the deep.). 

A full spread sketchbook page lies clipped open on a desk. Visible is a drawing of a young man in the process of throwing a disc golf disc. Around him is a vibrant halo of colored pencil colors.
This is a drawing of Sam that I sketched live on location while
he disc golfed near the end of May. It was his 23rd
birthday morning, and we were spending it together, just he and I,
because Steve had to teach. I’d been wanting to start sketching
humans in action, so we hatched this plan of him disc golfing
and me following along with my sketchbook seeing if I 
could keep up. It was a glorious time together and one of
the last carefree moments we had before we found out
what was growing inside of him. I took this sketch, which
was only black ink lines at the time, to Sam’s biopsy 
appointment just a week later so that I had something to
keep my hands busy. I thought I would add in all the trees
 and buildings that I remembered being in that location,
but when I saw the small collection of colored pencils
 in my sketching kit, all I could think to do was frantically scribble
protective colors around my drawing of my baby.
Funny how when I was totally at peace with the world I leaned
on ink, but when I was feeling deeply afraid I reached for colors.


And so, with this post I am taking a tentative first step back into a public art making-and-sharing life. I don’t know exactly what the future holds for Have Color Will Travel (for Pete’s sake—tomorrow’s agenda hinges on the results of my son’s latest round of bloodwork, and as I type at 4pm we’re still waiting to hear back from the doctor), but what I can promise y’all is that it will be extremely colorful, quite often colorable, and (I hope) occasionally creatively inspirational.πŸŒˆπŸ–πŸ’š

Comments

  1. Hey Michelle. Thank you so much for sharing.
    I understand a lot of what you mean, the fear of sharing…. words are failing me here. But sending lots of love to you and the fam.

    The support will be here. We wouldn’t expect you to be the exact same human as before. Give yourself space to absorb and adapt. Again, sending lots of love, and don’t forget to give yourself the space needed to process all of this.

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    1. Thank you for spending time with my words and art, and thank you for your support—I deeply appreciate itπŸ’š

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  2. Bless the three of you. I can only imagine what you must have felt as you watched your baby in the ICU. I have been through my parents and grandparents being in that “room” but not my children. You are blessed beyond measure with the support and love the three of you share.

    I love how Samuel was supporting you while you were struggling with your blog. What an awesome young man you have.

    Just take it one day at a time. Baby steps and breathing. We are here for you. πŸ’œπŸ

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    1. Michelle, my heart is breaking for you, Steve, and Sam. I will lift you all in prayer each day knowing God answers our prayers. You three have always been so very close. I am sure this has drawn you all even closer together. This is such an important part of your story to tell grandchildren and others later. I believe there is a reason for going through this difficult time with Sam's cancer. Maybe his career choice will change, or maybe he will meet people who will change his life. We may never know why he had to go through this at such a young age. Please know that I will be praying for all of you and that I am here if you need me. Sending my love,
      Sam's 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Jeffers

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    2. Thank you for all your love and support, DeniseπŸ’š

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  3. Hi Michelle, I haven't used Blogger since one of Vrooman's (Steve's) classes, and after I saw his update on soc. media, I knew I had to read this. I just wanted to extend my concern and care to you both and say that I'm amazed at your resilience. I can't begin to understand what your experience has meant for you, but I'm so appreciative that you could share some of it, and it has really impacted me. I feel so grateful that I could meet you at Dr. Bisha's, and I really hope I get to see you around campus and discuss life and art. Vrooman (Steve, sorry it feels weird calling him by his first name) has given me such a sense of community and a love of learning, and I just hope I get to see you both and catch up with you soon, you're both such wonderful, genuine people. Again, I can't imagine how this must impact you- how it must feel for you, but thank you for sharing this experience, I hope it has helped to put it into words. Sending healing thoughts and comfort. I'll see you around soon. -Caroline

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    1. Thank you for spending time with our story and for sharing with me how it touched you—I very much appreciate itπŸ’š And, feel free to call Steve by his last name as long as you like—whenever he’s “in trouble” with me I call him Vrooman, so it’s super fun to have his former students do so, tooπŸ€“

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    2. I'm glad I could get familiar with it and see how y'all have been doing. Also, good to know I can refer to him as Vrooman for future instances. Thanks again for sharing, Michelle <3

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