Julia Kirtley always knew she was at risk for breast cancer. Still, it was jarring for her when she actually received the diagnosis last December at the age of 57.
“I was always in that bracket of wondering if it would come my way given that my mother had breast cancer, and my sister and my first cousin had breast cancer as well,” Kirtley, a lifelong Brooklynite from Crown Heights, said.
“I’ve always been going for my mammograms and just knowing how serious it was for me to stay on top of being checked out. But to be honest, I thought I would be able to avoid it. I just never imagined it would come my way, and it was pretty devastating.”
When faced with such scary news, many people need something to take their minds off their fears. Fortunately, Kirtley didn’t have to go looking for such an outlet. She already had one — art.
Kirtley has been a teaching artist in the New York City school system for 15 years, she said. So, when she received her diagnosis, she knew exactly where to turn.
“I’ve seen how it’s helped many students from first grade all the way up to 12th grade,” Kirtley said.
“I already knew the transformative power of art, but now I just needed to direct it through myself.”
Going through her treatment, which lasted from January through March of 2022, she said she’d often find herself bringing her art journal along with some crayons or colored pencils to take her mind off everything while she sat in waiting rooms listening for her name to be called.
“I have anxiety, and art is the thing I use. It just puts me in a great state of mind. During the time of the diagnosis with cancer, I just felt like I needed to do it,” Kirtley said.
“It was the thing that made me feel the most joy, settled my mind, I’m not thinking about anything but color and creating.”
She’s not the only one who noticed the effect art had on her during treatment. Kirtley said her doctors noticed, too. This is why, now that she’s out of treatment, both Kirtley and her doctors thought it might be helpful to introduce the concept to other patients as well.
“My doctors were really receptive to the idea of ‘Hey, what if we presented this to other patients?'” she said.
“And I guess they recognized that my morale was good and I just shared with them what I was using and that was my art.”
Kirtley is now cancer-free, seven months and counting. But, she said she’d already been using art to try to help people, even before her cancer diagnosis: She facilitated workshops during the pandemic, and this past summer, Kirtley began hosting a series of art therapy sessions for other breast cancer patients at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
In her own art, Kirtley said abstract expressionism is her typical style, and it's the one that helped her the most during treatment.
“It’s just about me interpreting what I’m seeing and how I’m feeling through color and design,” she said.
“If the viewer can see that, that’s great, but perhaps the viewer is seeing something different, which is even better because art has the ability to morph into various meanings, various perspectives.”
Lately, Kirtley has really enjoyed painting cityscapes.
“Right now, I’m turning out these wonderful cityscapes that include mirrored pieces and other found objects, and I love using the mirrored pieces because it allows people who are viewing it to see themselves as part of their environment, and it’s always changing depending on how the light is hitting it.
"It just reminds you you’re alive. It kind of interacts with you so as you’re walking by, you’re like, ‘Hey, that’s me!'"
But of course, everyone has his or her own style, and Kirtley said she wants her art therapy sessions to help other patients express their emotions.
“Just having been on this road already with teaching, I enjoy when other people can tap into their creativity and feel empowered by it because that’s what it does for me,” she said.
Kirtley has an in-person workshop on Thursday, Oct. 27, which costs $65 to attend — the price covers supplies and two glasses of wine. The theme is "selfie in the city."
She also has two online workshops Friday, Oct. 28, and Friday, Nov. 18, which each cost $25 to attend.
Sign-ups are available on her website.
Kirtley also has an upcoming art exhibition in Mission Viejo, California, on Nov. 5.