Our patient, Harold, and his brave fight against oral cancer

Celebrating courage

Cancer-patient radiation masks turned into artistic tributes set for auction at fundraising gala

By  Amy Saunders  

The Columbus Dispatch

Tom dodge | DISPATCH

Cancer survivor Harry Grzeskowiak with artist Sandy Reddig and her interpretation of his radiation mask, Stars, So Many Stars

The mask trapped Harry Grzeskowiak during 34 radiation treatments, immobilizing his head and shoulders so that the cancer could be targeted.

It was an unpleasant reminder of the 72-year-old’s illness, which also required six rounds of chemotherapy and five surgeries to remove afflicted portions of his jawbone and tongue.

Asked to decorate the plastic mask for an art exhibit, Columbus portrait artist Sandy Reddig had no idea how to work with a medical accessory complete with surgical tape, stains and holes for a tracheotomy in Grzeskowiak’s throat and suction tube in his mouth.

Listening to his story, though, she noticed how often the Plain City resident thanked the people he called his “stars”: family members, friends, and doctors and nurses at Ohio State University’s Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital.

Reddig painted the mask in a swirling celestial theme, adorning it with stars and rosary beads like the ones Grzeskowiak used to pray.

She preserved the bolts that restrained the patient to a table, along with the holes. But in her re-imagining of the mask, Grzeskowiak gasps in awe of the people who helped him fight cancer.

Stars, So Many Stars is one of 26 pieces in “Courage Unmasked,” an exhibit commissioned for the Joan Levy Bisesi Foundation for Head and Neck Oncology Research that turns radiation masks into often-uplifting works of art.

On display through next Thursday at the Davis Group, a Short North-area furniture showroom, the masks will be auctioned the next night during a fundraising gala at the Franklin Park Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

The artwork, completed last year and displayed throughout 2011, was inspired by a Washington project of the same name that featured the work of 100 artists nationwide.

The artists in the Columbus version of “Courage Unmasked” — most of them from central Ohio — developed relationships with cancer survivors treated at the James. The collaborations yielded artistic representations of experiences with head and neck cancer.

Many masks in the exhibit were actually worn by the survivors; others are substitutes for patients who couldn’t bear to keep their masks after treatment.

“I’ve heard of people who run them over in their car or take them to a shooting gallery to shoot them with a gun,” said Melinda Fenholt Cogley, executive director of the foundation and a survivor of thyroid cancer. “People hate these masks.”

One piece in the exhibit features a mask cut into numerous pieces, arranged into falling leaves, because the survivor wanted the mask destroyed.

When Jim Walker told artist Randall Ater of his emotions throughout a five-year battle with tonsil cancer, the unexpected result was a 10-foot sculpture depicting the mask rising above a field of debris.

“I was truly amazed at what I saw,” said Walker, 73, of Columbus. “It pretty well summed up the way I had felt the whole time.”

Fenholt Cogley hopes that the gala and auction raises $100,000 for Joan’s Fund, a research endowment at the James named for the Bexley woman who succumbed to oral cancer at age 34 — when her firstborn daughter was just 10 weeks old.

Since Bisesi’s death in 2001, the fund has raised more than $700,000 mostly through payroll contributions at the James.

The Joan Levy Bisesi Foundation, a separate entity, was formed this year to produce fundraising events — including “Courage Unmasked,” which could become a biennial exhibit. (The board is seeking an artist to transform Bisesi’s mask.)

Participating in the exhibit was an emotional experience for Ruth Ann Mitchell, the only artist tasked with decorating a mask for a subject who did not survive cancer.

Michelle Theado died in 2009, just 15 months after learning that a sore under her tongue was not a canker sore but cancer. The 26-year-old had been approaching her second wedding anniversary and fourth year as a teacher.

Her family hoped that the mask would focus on her life at Gahanna’s Goshen Lane Elementary School, where the first-grade teacher was known for her bubbly personality and knack for working with children not always enthusiastic about learning.

“It just made me feel so committed to the project, to want to share who she was and the standards she set for herself and her students,” Mitchell said.

Covering the mask with materials from school workbooks and photos of Theado, Mitchell attached it to a chalkboard displaying a message written by the artist’s granddaughter: “Education + Funds = CURE.”

Theado’s father, Chuck Peltier, began crying when he first saw the piece earlier this year.

“It really got to me that this is part of your daughter and what she represents,” said Peltier, of Piqua. “It was a tough thing to see hanging there, but it captured what she was about.”

At the auction next week, he hopes to purchase what is no longer a dreaded mask but a memorial to his daughter.

asaunders@dispatch.com