TRAVERSE CITY — Sofia Fraccarolli gingerly opened a cardboard carton and pulled out a framed art work: three, side-by-side studies of a hand clasping another, rendered in India ink, charcoal and graphite.
The poignant work by Seattle artist Becky Joy Aitken represents the three days she held her mother’s hand while waiting for her to wake after a stroke. It’s one of dozens of art works featured in the new show, Every Single Day: Experiences in Illness and Health, at the Cowell Family Cancer Center.
The exhibition was curated by Fraccarolli and other students of Interlochen Arts Academy’s Aesthetics of Health course. It addresses cancer and other health experiences from a personal perspective, whether as a patient, caretaker, doctor or clinical staff member.
“Several of the artists are cancer patients or survivors,” said Megan Hildebrandt, an Interlochen visual arts instructor and a survivor of Hodgkin lymphoma, who turned to art during her chemotherapy. “We wanted to open it up to all aspects of illness and health. Some of the work is about birth and pregnancy, some of it is about caregiving, one is about watching their father, a 911 first responder, and what he went through.
“What’s exciting about the art is that it’s pretty beautiful and optimistic despite the subject matter.”
The art is on display in the cancer center’s third-floor gallery where it can be viewed by patients, their families and clinical staff. It serves as everything from a conversation starter, to a connection with the community, to a momentary break from — or reflection on — cancer and the healing journey.
“I think art is very healing. It’s a way for people to express and bring forth part of what that meaning is for them personally,” said Anne Bacon, the cancer center’s support services manager. “Maybe for each person it’s something different."
Aesthetics of Health is a partnership between Interlochen and the cancer center. It started in fall of 2016 as a way for Hildebrandt — in remission for seven years — to give back.
The show is one of several student projects, including making live art at the cancer center and creating art in the classroom in response to experiences there. It had students announcing a call for entries, curating the work that was submitted, and evaluating it for appropriateness.
“It was, ‘How can the art create value, hope, or some other articulation of being human,’” Hildebrandt said. “That was one of the hardest things because you may like the work but it’s also thinking about the audience who will see it. It’s different than a museum-going audience.”
After final approval from the cancer center, students installed hardware and hung the show.
The exhibition is personal for Fraccarolli, an Aesthetics of Health student. The senior from Rochester, Michigan has Crohn’s Disease, a chronic inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract.
“I’m a patient at the cancer center, so being able to curate that space is amazing,” said Fraccarolli, who gets infusion treatments at the center every eight weeks.
Classmate Simon Garb helped curate a student art show but said this one is different.
“This show I found much more interesting because it’s one category and then multiple facets of that category. That makes it much more interesting than one perspective,” said the junior from Appleton, Wisconsin. “And it’s going directly in a place that pertains to the art.”
Altogether the works represent more than 40 artists across the country and Canada, from a student at The Chicago Academy for Arts to a teacher at Miami's New World School of the Arts. All have powerful stories to tell because of their personal experiences with illness, Hildebrandt said.
Next up on the students' agenda: designing a mural for the tunnel leading from the cancer center to Munson Medical Center.