Flint, MI—Flint resident Catherine Davids, 75, didn’t know what to expect from her first art therapy session. She left about an hour and a half later, carrying a visual art journal she created that day, and, beyond that, newfound connections. 

“It’s the first time I ever truly experienced women so devastated by cancer and the treatment, crying about it, but still doing their art and having fun,” said Davids, who was first diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2018. 

“The longer I sat there, the more comfortable I got and I thought, ‘I love these women,’” she continued. “They knew who I was. They understood what I was going through.” 

Catherine Davids works on a collage during Karmanos Cancer Institute’s art therapy seession on Sept. 30, 2022, at the McLaren Hospitality House. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

Davids has been a participant of the Healing Through Art program at McLaren Flint’s Karmanos Cancer Institute since 2019.

The program is a free resource for anyone touched by cancer, from patients to their families and caregivers, and recently received a $41,000 mini-grant from the Genesee Health System. 

“My option was to either be a cancer patient 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or be an artist. And I decided to be an artist.”

Catherine Davids

The program aims to promote physical and psychological healing, helping people process their emotions and trauma, such as anxiety, grief, loss and depression, said Erin Simonetti, the art therapist who manages Healing Through Art.

For those affected by cancer, Simonetti said finding the right words to express what they’re going through is often difficult, but art therapy creates avenues of non-verbal and visual expression.

“A lot of times, what you’re putting onto paper has meaning, so there’s a lot of self-discovery and a better understanding of yourself, which inherently helps when it comes to anxiety and depression in a lot of these life-changing experiences,” Simonetti said.

Cancer survivor Cathy Hintz, 59, a resident of Swartz Creek, Mich, works on her wood sculpture of a lotus flower during Karmanos Cancer Institute’s art therapy session on Sept. 30, 2022 at the McLaren Hospitality House. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)
Cathy Hintz displays her wood sculpture of a lotus flower at Karmanos Cancer Institute’s art therapy session on Sept. 30, 2022, at the McLaren Hospitality House. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)
Sherrisa Hayes-Powell, 54, a resident of Flint, Mich, and Cathy Hintz participate in Karmanos Cancer Institute’s art therapy session on Sept. 30, 2022, at the McLaren Hospitality House. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)
Sherrisa Hayes-Powell colors her artwork of a flower bouquet at Karmanos Cancer Institute’s art therapy session on Sept. 30, 2022. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)
Sherrisa Hayes-Powell’s father, Alfred Hayes, holds her artwork on his birthday this year, Oct. 5, at his home in the state of Georgia. (Image by Sherrisa Hayes-Powell)
Sherrisa Hayes-Powell’s “Imperfections” artwork is seen on Sept. 30, 2022, at the McLaren Hospitality House. The piece was featured at the Cause and Affect Gallery’s Survivor showcase in 2021. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

For Davids, undergoing chemotherapy took a major toll both physically and psychologically.

“I was trying to be the same person, but the chemotherapy wasn’t letting me be the same person,” she said. “Along the way, I lost bits and pieces of myself that I’m never getting back.”

Art therapy, however, has helped open her eyes to life beyond cancer. 

“My option was to either be a cancer patient 24 hours a day, seven days a week, or be an artist. And I decided to be an artist,” Davids said. 

Catherine Davids’ acrylic artwork “Softly They Left” is seen on display at the Cause and Affect Gallery’s Survivor II showcase in Fenton, Mich, on Oct. 1, 2022. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

Davids never considered herself as an artist before taking part in Healing Through Art. While she had always enjoyed doing artistic work, Davids, like most others in the program, had never received any formal art training prior to participating.

Davids explained that art therapy is a space for exploration, one where she can immerse herself in discovering her creative potential.

“You get to try all these different kinds of art,” Davids said. “It’s just incredible. You can figure out what you’re really good at and then you start focusing on that. You’re shifting your focus to fine-tune who you are as an artist.” 

“Art is something that anybody of any age can do,” she added.

Davids’ strength as an artist lies in creating collages and assemblages, the latter of which involves combining three-dimensional elements into an artwork.

One of her assemblages, along with an acrylic artwork, are featured at Cause and Affect Gallery’s Survivor II showcase, which presents the work of cancer survivors. The showcase runs from Oct. 1 through Nov. 5, 2022.

“I love what I do so much that most of the stuff I do, I don’t want to get rid of,” Davids said. “My sister jokes that when it’s my time to go, she’s positive she’s going to walk into my basement and it’s going to be full of artwork that I just couldn’t part with, and she’s not going to know what to do with it.”

Catherine Davids’ artwork “A Curious Assemblage of Amalgamation” is seen on display at the Cause and Affect Gallery’s Survivor II showcase in Fenton, Mich, on Oct. 1, 2022. (Nicholas Chan | Flint Beat)

But it’s not so much about the final product as it is the process of creation and the support system she has forged along the way. Just as important as the care of her medical team is all that Davids has gained from Healing Through Art.

“For me, they have an equal value,” she said. “They both saved my life.” 

Nicholas Chan

Nicholas is Flint Beat’s public health and education reporter. He joins the team as he graduates from Santa Clara University, Calif. Nicholas has previously reported on dementia and brain health, as...