Healing Through Art: Ron's Story

Ron ParisiWhen it comes to cancer, this is not Ron Parisi's first rodeo.


"I feel like I've been doing this forever," he says, with arms waving above his head circling an invisible and never-ending lasso.


Ron has lived through prostate cancer, melanoma and now this: cancer in his tongue and throat. It's hard for him to speak, but Ron's easy to talk to.


While he can't move his tongue very well, Ron's words come out with intention. So when he talks about a new vocation, art, he does so thoughtfully. He describes the landscapes of buildings lolling over rolling hills. They are little boxes, none with doors, with smaller rectangles outlining windows to little worlds we can't see. With each corner, the perspective changes with an angle or a curve, so each world Ron draws comes out looking like a fantasy: houses, hills, and colors, all swirling towards each other - and towards a center that lies on a different plane.


“Cancer is always there, but when I draw, I don't think of anything.”

"The end just happens," he says. "The beginning can be anywhere on the page."


So how did a man who used to only draw on the corners of meeting agendas become an artist?


"I was caught doodling during chemo," Ron confesses of his first experience with UW Hospital and Clinics Arts-In-Heath program at the UW Carbone Cancer Center.


Artist-in-residence Sarah Petto, MFA, knew talent and passion when she saw it, and enlisted Ron in the program designed to give patients receiving care a chance to express themselves. For some time, it's been known that mindfulness-based activities can improve well-being in cancer patients.


"It gives these people an opportunity to tap into their unique, creative selves," says Petto. "For many of our patients art-making engages them and is transformative, as it has been for Ron."One of Ron's drawings


The medium is usually watercolor pencil supplied by Petto as part of the Arts-In-Health program, one of many media offered. At first, Ron drew tight totemic figures in only black – turtles, eyes without faces, and serpent-like tails that bring to mind Native American images.


"It's an act of meditation," Ron says of the hours each day he spends on his work. "Cancer is always there, but when I draw, I don't think of anything."


Ron's works are playful and serene. It's impossible not to follow the shapes and colors in the endless angles of pattern, like a peaceful vertigo. Ron used to work with the disabled in their homes as a nurse.


"I used to take care of those who can't take care of themselves," he says. " Now I'm the patient, and they take care of me." He hates that he can't do it anymore, but combined with the frequent sleepless nights, Ron has a lot of time to draw.


Ron now gets his supplies as part of a nascent out-patient program called "Artful Healing And Health-Ahh!" supported by the Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment. This program is designed to continue free access to art-making activities for patients after they are discharged from the hospital, and is also run by Petto. Having his work on display at UW Hospital and Clinics and at Absolutely Art in the Atwood neighborhood in Madison in November was a joyful experience.


When he reflects on the idea that others could relate to his art, he say he's, "Overwhelmed… and surprised."


Worlds get smaller and smaller with age and illness, and we find solace in the routine, in pattern, and in uncertainty when it comes. As our circles become smaller, they also gather more meaning. And the art is good, but maybe that's not the point. Maybe it's good enough that it brings relief to a man whose world changed dramatically three years ago, when the throat cancer invaded his body and his family's life. And in this world where Ron doesn't get to taste or swallow food, words don't come out so easily, but colors and patterns forever change perspective.