Artist Pairings: Brushes with Cancer Opens More Th...

Artist Pairings: Brushes with Cancer Opens More Than Hearts

One Breath at a Time, by Karen Kingsolver and Beverly Dyer

We recently were introduced to an organization that is doing some amazing things and wanted to bring it to our Art Business News readers. Twist Out Cancer is not a new organization, in fact, it’s getting ready to celebrate its tenth year. But it started out as a small grassroots online community that today reaches hundreds and thousands of people around the world.

Jenna Benn Shersher, Founder and CEO of Twist Out Cancer (TOC), was midway through her cancer treatment and feeling isolated. A dance lover, she created a video of herself doing the twist and asked her friends to join her on a virtual dance floor. It was the power of sharing and having a support community that so benefited her that she wanted to share. After completing treatment, she wanted to give back in a meaningful way. And Twist Out Cancer was born.

As TOC describes on their website: “Twist Out Cancer offers the platform, tools, and communityboth online and offline—for anyone touched by cancer to feel connected to a community, and for many to take action. A labor of love, Twist Out Cancer is a volunteer-led organization boasting a network of volunteers serving as ambassadors in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, Tel Aviv, Montreal, and Toronto.” One of the innovative ways that TOC connects the community to those impacted by cancer is through their Brushes with Cancer program.

Brushes with Cancer is a four-month program that strategically matches artists with those touched by cancer to create unique pieces of artwork reflective of their personal journey with cancer. It’s a global community of previvors (individuals who are genetically predisposed to cancer), survivors, caregivers, supporters, and artists.

Brushes with Cancer (BWC) pairs an artist with an “Inspiration” and they connect in person, via FaceTime, on the phone, or by email. Their relationships are guided and supported by mentors, who are often clinicians who are there to create a system of support for both the artist and inspiration. The program finishes with an art exhibition, gala, and auction where the artwork is unveiled and auctioned. What started as a small art exhibition in Chicago for 20 artists and Inspirations has now become an international program with people involved globally.

We Were Inspired!

Who doesn’t know someone who has had or has cancer? It’s pervasive and comes in so many forms—some many don’t even think of as cancer and some so rare that they aren’t part of our awareness until someone has it. Bringing awareness through art and creating a community of support along the way is truly inspiring. We wanted to know more.

We met with August Spree, TOC Executive Board Member and Director of Programs, and artist Karen Kingsolver to get a couple of inside viewpoints on the Brushes with Cancer program. Of course, since the whole TOC concept is built on the belief that when you share, the world opens up, they both were eager to tell their stories.

August came to BWC unexpectedly when a friend gave her a ticket to one of the galas. She loved the artwork and as a 10-year cancer survivor herself, she was moved by what she was experiencing. She describes, “The poignancy of the program, creating beauty from pain using art, touched my soul on a deeper level than I was even able to express at that time. This was what I had been looking for within the cancer community; a way to be involved in something personal, something creative, something with a healing quality.” Then one day, she was invited to be an Inspiration in the 2014 Brushes program.

In her words, what August came to realize is that she was “able to lay out all of my journey, the fears, the struggles, and the victories, without judgment, criticism or emotional reaction. And while I shared, I could feel myself coming to terms with my own experiences.” Things she hadn’t shared with family or even her closest friends were now spoken for the first time with her artist — and became the muse for the artwork that was unveiled. It was a healing experience for August and today working with Twist Out Cancer, she brings that experience to others over and over again.

A match: beauty from sharing

With an amazing career and background in behavioral medicine and psychology, Karen Kingsolver uses many art modalities including poetry, theater, clay, and mark-making to teach and support palliative and surgical physicians at several universities including Duke, and the universities of North Carolina and Michigan. She was inspired by the Brushes with Cancer program and applied to be an artist simply wanting to contribute. She had no idea her Inspiration would have such a profound impact on her life, nor did she anticipate the astonishing bond she would feel with her Inspiration.

Karen Kingsolver Journal Page

Karen Kingsolver Journal Page

Karen enlisted an artist friend, Beverly Dyer, and together they worked with her Inspiration over the months preceding the gala and, as it turned out her Inspiration’s death. The instant connection Karen felt with her Inspiration had Karen sketching and writing in journals to capture her Inspiration’s insights and wisdom. She filled most of a journal in the months they talked. Her Inspiration was going through intense difficulties and yet often was asking courageous questions such as “How do you find gratitude when you are so very sick?” and “Life has set me some big and impossible terms, so how do I keep enjoying life, while I am still living?” “Love runs through it,” was yet another one of the things Karen would hear when they connected. That and “you can invent a shiny Facebook story that ignores the truth, hides difficulties. Or, you can keep searching to transform things, to shine a light on what’s happened to you.”

Karen Kingsolver Journal Page

Karen Kingsolver Journal Page

Karen’s Inspiration was honored in memoriam during the Brushes with Cancer Detroit celebration in 2019. Today, as Karen reflects on the experience, she says, “She was, from the moment I met her, such an Inspiration and I told her that frequently. My Inspiration thought deeply about the big questions such as how to live your life, how to be real, and who to make time for, and who to let go. Her beauty and depth were totally unexpected.” Karen continues to be involved with BWC and is looking forward to meeting her next inspiration and creating another piece of art with that person this Spring. 

It’s the art that makes a difference

August recounts the interplay between the artists and their Inspirations she has watched so many times over the years since she walked into that first BWC gala. “An artist creates from their own viewpoint, from their experiences and inspirations. With the Brushes program, they tap into someone else and create from their viewpoint. It’s magic to see!”

As is frequently the case with art, there is a healing and a creation of awareness and revelation in the process. Not only do the Brushes pairs feel the power in their relationship and the art that has been created, but the program engages others. From stimulating interest in art at all levels to creating broader and more impactful cancer awareness while encouraging greater community involvement, the outcomes all make a difference.

We couldn’t end more perfectly than with a quote from the BWC brochure: “Brushes with Cancer is a celebration of survivorship and hope through art, music, and storytelling.”


About Twist Out Cancer

Established in 2011 as a non-profit organization, Twist Out Cancer® offers the platform, tools and community – both online and offline – for anyone touched by cancer to feel connected to a community, and for many to take action. Twist Out Cancer was founded on the principle that when you share, the world opens up. Since its inception, the organization has touched over 22,000 people around the world through its programs and events. A labor of love, Twist Out Cancer is a volunteer-led organization boasting a network of over 200 active volunteers serving as ambassadors in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Ann Arbor, Austin, Tel Aviv, Toronto, and Montreal. More information is available at

About Brushes with Cancer

Brushes with Cancer® is the signature program of Twist Out Cancer® which provides psychosocial support to individuals touched by cancer through a unique art experience. The program matches those touched by cancer (Inspirations) with artists to create a unique piece of artwork that reflects their personal journey with cancer. Each pair is matched with a mentor which is typically a clinical psychologist or social worker that oversees the relationship development and helps to ensure that each participant is supported and heard. Since 2012, there have been over 400 works of art created and over 30,000 individuals impacted by the program. More information is available at

For media inquiries, please contact Joshua Taustein at

To bring Brushes with Cancer to your community, please contact Amelia Hanrahan at


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