Facing her second cancer diagnosis in less than a decade, freelance writer and artist Bija Gutoff found that pink ribbons and encouraging words were not enough to get through a life-changing illness.
Instead, she found solace in a place she didn’t expect but had been close to her all along.
Gutoff’s work was unveiled last week at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center as part of Legacy’s 2023-24 Art in Residence exhibit titled “Wild Around the Edges: The Healing Power of Words and Pictures.”
The Art in Residence program at the Legacy Cancer Healing Center allows patients receiving cancer treatment through Legacy to participate in writing, painting and other restorative exercises. Through group art sessions and individual support, the marriage between emotional and medical healing promotes strength for patients.
Gutoff, 66, began her journey with art therapy at the Good Samaritan Healing Center around seven years ago. A writer for most of her life, she didn’t expect visual art to be such a transformative outlet.
“Writing about my cancer experience was the most familiar thing to explore,” Gutoff said. “For most of my life I would express myself through words. I never thought of myself as an artist.”
When Gutoff was first diagnosed with cancer at 49, she felt lost. When the cancer returned nine years later, that feeling of uncertainty didn’t waver.
“I didn’t know what to think, how to feel – or what to say,” Gutoff said during a speech. “I didn’t want pink ribbons. And I didn’t like the way people talked about cancer. When friends or family would bring up the usual cancer metaphors — ‘You’ve gotta fight back. You’ve gotta find the silver lining. You’ve gotta follow the journey’ — I squirmed with discomfort. Ugh. Not those.”
Throughout treatment and remission, and as she got comfortable with the Art in Residence program, Gutoff wanted to combine words and pictures to tell her story. Her mixed-media art blends colorful shapes, figures and words most important to her.
“I was literally cutting pictures out of magazines, or using lines from my favorite poems,” Gutoff said. “I kind of just played around with it. That was part of what was so liberating for me. I love that dance between the colors, the images and the words.”
Art therapist Margaret Hartsook leads the program at Legacy, focusing on adults experiencing grief or loss. Hartsook says creative freedom through art can be a healing exercise for people dealing with life-altering diagnoses.
“It gives people an emotional expression in a place where they’ve been through physical body changes, pain and all the associated things,” she said. “Often it’s hard to express, so the art, the writing and the other modalities, give people an opportunity to do that work.”
The exhibit also includes art from people who have gone through the program in previous years and from those who have been touched by cancer. Gutoff’s work will be on display for an entire year at the Salmon Creek Healing Center at 2211 N.E. 139th St.
“If a new countenance arose from these scraps, I wanted to meet her. Cancer could go now. I would become a new story,” Gutoff said.
The Art in Residence program is currently available at Legacy Salmon Creek, Good Samaritan and Mount Hood. To schedule an appointment, contact Margaret Hartsook or Blair Allen directly. For more information about classes and the current list of groups, visit: legacyhealth.org/cancerclasses.
This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.