Shyly, 8-year-old Annabelle Brassfield climbed atop a stool in front of a blank easel, grabbed a brush she named Scarlet and prepared to paint her scars. After three open heart surgeries for a severe congenital heart defect, she's left with a zipper scar that she says still causes her pain at times.
A Louisiana-based company has brought ScART (or Scar-art), a new art-based empowerment concept, to St. Petersburg in hopes of easing scar pain.
"We're hoping to bring art fun into the lives of like-minded (people)," said Leslie Gay, owner of the St. Petersburg Painting With a Twist franchise, which was one of five locations in the country to test the ScART program and offered its first class this month. "We want them to laugh and explore their scars, whether it be physical or emotional, in a safe setting."
The program will be rolled out at up to 350 sites nationwide beginning in July.
Participants are invited to take photos of their scars, sketch them, even use mud for raised texture and acrylic paint to turn them into a piece of art that expresses their feelings.
Organizers report the result has been therapeutic and empowering, turning the class into a support group.
I attended the class with my partner of 18 years, Rita Chmela, 60, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2017 and underwent a double mastectomy.
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The ScART concept was conceived in January 2017 by Lisa McKenzie, founder of Louisiana's You Night Empowering Events, which provides alternative therapies for breast cancer survivors. McKenzie works with You Night's Runway Program, which helps breast cancer survivors overcome appearance anxiety by turning them into runway models.
"As I was leaving the office, I saw these four paintings in the hallway. They had this raised kind of resin," McKenzie said by phone. "Earlier, the ladies from You Night (runway program) were lifting up their tops and showing off their surgery scars. When I looked at the paintings, I saw a swirl that looked exactly like one of the ladies' scars. I thought, 'This could be the coolest way for people to be able to show their scars without having it be uncomfortable.'?"
Without a licensed therapist on staff, ScART is not art therapy, it is more like art support.
"It's not art therapy, but it is therapeutic," McKenzie said. "It uncovers a lot of raw emotions for some people who keep it buried and never address how they feel."
Breast cancer survivor Melissa Bailey, a licensed clinical psychologist who practices in Safety Harbor and author of Pink Hell: Breast Cancer Sucks, said this type of program can be just as beneficial as typical therapy in her opinion.
"I think this is a really cool idea. A lot of times support groups are, 'Okay we're all going to go in this room and we're all going to talk about our feelings,'?" Bailey said. "Instead, this gives you a focus project where you're actually doing something and enjoying each other's company."
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She supports the base concept of the program providing a solid platform to express yourself and work on your feelings in a relaxed environment.
"It's a great way for people who have been through any type of surgery to come together. I like the idea that it's got a common goal," Bailey said. "It gives a good platform for people who have been through this to open up a little more."
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To ensure participants look at their scars and delve into their feelings about them before the class, McKenzie worked with nurse navigators, social workers, art therapists, surgeons and a gynecologist to devise "homework."
"The homework assignment essentially is the therapy," McKenzie said. "It gives everyone a chance to evaluate their relationship with their scars. By the time they show up at a Painting With a Twist location, the emotional part is sort of taken care of and they get to focus on the fun of freeform, abstract art."
The homework has multiple steps. First, class participants must take a photo of their scar. Then, they sketch it on supplied paper. The third step is to have a "dialogue" with themselves about their feelings. Finally, they color-code the emotions that represent how they feel about their scar.
"You know the homework has worked when people say, 'I'm going to do a little bit of love' or 'I want some hope' and 'throw in a little fear,' instead of, 'I want red, green and black,'?" McKenzie said.
Next, using mud for raised texture and acrylic paint, they sketch their scar and use it as the base to create a piece of art that captures their feelings.
After two hours of painting, participants show the class their work and share the stories behind it.
On her blank canvas, Rita drew her mastectomy scars. From that, she created an image in which her breasts had fallen into a school of sharks that fed on them. Breast cancer ribbons rested on top of each scar. She used "mud" to build up her scars on the canvas, then painted them, turning the green water into blood red. She said her painting, Shark Attack, depicts how she feels about the cancer, her surgery and her fear of the cancer returning.
"I felt as though I stood alone in the green waters of the ocean, up to my neck, and was blindsided by a feeding frenzy of vicious gray sharks," she told the group. "In the white fog, I received no warning before I suddenly felt my fleshy breasts being ripped from my body. The sharks left nothing but the jagged scars I now carry. It's impossible for me to relax now, when I don't know if, or when, the water will turn black and the sharks will return to finish their feeding frenzy."
Annabelle used a lot of pink, black and gold in her artwork of swirls.
"I did black because it brought fear. But I overcame, that's gold," she said. "Also, the doctors were really sweet and caring to help me survive. Pink is sweetness."
After thinking a while, she asked to speak again.
"One of the questions in the homework was on negatives and I couldn't answer it because I didn't have any. I really have overcome," said Annabelle, who was there with her mother, Kate Brassfield, a former Times employee.
Instructor Jennifer Jacobs painted two pictures. One was of her emergency appendectomy scar.
"When I looked at it, it looked like the veins going into it were feeding it," she said.
Her painting showed the curvy scar with flowers growing out of it on an orange and yellow background representing warmth and optimism.
Many tears were shed at the class, but Rita said she got a lot out of the session.
"It's only been a year for me since my surgery," she shared with the group. "This really made me think about it differently."
Upon completion of the class, participants are invited to join a closed social media group.
"We have a private Facebook group for people who have been through our programs so they can write how they're feeling and continue to support each other," McKenzie said.
More than 150 people have gone through the ScART program, which until now has only been available in Louisiana. After the national launch, the St. Petersburg location plans to hold sessions every other month.
"We'd like to hold it more often," Painting With a Twist's Gay said. "We will if it's called for. This is a way for us to give back."
Contact Kelly Stefani at email@example.com or (727) 893-8194.