SOUTH BRISTOL – Twenty minutes a day.
Sally Loughridge disciplined herself to stand at her easel for 20 minutes each day that she received radiation treatment following surgery for breast cancer.
For 33 days over the bleary late-winter of March and the hopeful early-spring of April 2010, she traveled from her home in South Bristol to the Coastal Cancer Treatment Center in Bath for focused doses of radiation. She returned home exhausted and filled with unsettled emotions.
Maybe she would have a quick bite or a brief rest. But always and with unwavering discipline, Loughridge mustered whatever strength and resolve was necessary, and engaged in a vigorous, spirited painting session.
“It gave me some sense of control of a situation that felt scary and out of control to me,” says Loughridge, one of Maine’s most popular painters, who is best known for her soft-hued seascapes in watercolor, oil and pastel. “It wasn’t about painting pictures that would be hanging up anywhere. It was a way to express myself and to understand myself better.”
Her 20-minute painting sessions became a coping strategy, allowing her an unfiltered means of expressing the fears, sadness, vulnerability, uncertainty and anger that many cancer patients experience. The resulting series is a record of her private experience.
The American Cancer Society has published Loughridge’s paintings in a new book, “Rad Art: A Journey Through Radiation Treatment.” Each painting includes a few sentences from Loughridge that explain her feelings each day.
Tony Award-winning playwright Eve Ensler wrote the introduction.
“Rad Art,” which takes its name from the computer file that Loughridge used to store digital images of her paintings, will help others facing similar life-changing crises navigate their emotions, says Susan Clifford, state director of communications for the American Cancer Society in Maine.
“Her powerful images and short messages convey her feelings and emotions in a simple but powerful way,” Clifford says. “After being diagnosed with cancer or any other life-changing event, people may feel like their life is out of their control. Expressing emotions instead of keeping them inside lowers stress and promotes mental and physical health. Sally’s book helps people discover the power of expressing their feelings through art, music or another creative outlet.”
When she made these paintings, Loughridge had no intention of sharing them. At first, she wasn’t comfortable “going public” with breast cancer at all. She did not want cancer to define her.
A retired clinical psychologist, Loughridge wanted her painting exercise to be something that would help her feel better, to purge negative feelings and anxieties from her system.
She was adamant about restricting her time in the studio to 20 minutes a day. Had she allowed herself more time, or if she went back later to work on something, she would defeat the purpose of her exercise.
It was a form of therapy, and it worked.
The process helped steady her emotions and gave her something to look forward to each day, she says. “Usually, I was eager to paint,” she says.
Loughridge, who is 67 now, was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2010. She had surgery almost immediately and began radiation soon after.
She remembers feeling overwhelmed with confusion, anger and fear. Everything happened so fast, she barely had time to process one piece of information before another came along. She needed ballast.
Painting made the most sense. Loughridge and her husband, Stephen Busch, moved to Maine in 1999, and Loughridge has painted full-time since.
During a trip to Portland before beginning her radiation regimen, Loughridge stopped at her favorite art-supply store and loaded up on 5-by-7-inch panels. This was the perfect size for her exercise, because it allowed her to fill the surface quickly.
She gave the images no thought in advance, and had no goals for how she wanted them to look. Even now, she resists using the word “painting” to describe them. “They’re not paintings,” she says. “They’re expressions.”
Today, the 33 panels line a rail that runs along the wall of her studio. As they are in the book, the paintings are aligned in chronological order.
They tell the arc of her story.
The image from Day 1 is titled “My Right Breast.” Loughridge wrote, “I had always thought of my breasts as a matched pair. But once I received a diagnosis of breast cancer, they have become distinctly individual.”
Day 4 is “Feeling Small” — a wash of thick red paint with a tiny little blob of yellow. “Low Day” is a color field of purple and blue. “Despite having lots of love and support, I feel alone and apart,” she wrote.
As the treatment continues, the mood lightens. The colors becomes brighter. Her expression feels more confident.
By the 11th day of her treatment, she creates an image that resembles a Loughridge painting. It is a seascape, with a pair of islands off in the distance beneath a sky that hints of sunshine.
She titled this one “Out of Nowhere” because it represented the first time in this process that Loughridge noticed her natural painting instinct float up “out of nowhere.” She says, “It most resembles the work that I do. That felt good to me. That was the first moment in this sequence that I felt lighter.”
As an artist, Loughridge resists the urge to edit or improve these images, and is able to views them critically.
“I don’t like this one,” she says of one. “And I really don’t like this one. These two are trying way too hard.”
She calls attention to a painting she calls “My Terrain,” from the second day of treatment.
At first glance, it looks like a landscape, with a deep red mountain range blanketed by a stormy yellow sky. She remembers feeling unhappy and scared, and wrote in her journal, “I am angry that I need more treatment, angry that I have cancer.”
Look closely, and we see that “My Terrain” is not a mountain range, but an image of Loughridge on the treatment table. There’s her head, her breasts and the bend of her knees propped over a pillow. The unsettled atmosphere above her torso are clouds of radiation.
“I endowed myself a little bit,” she laughs. “But why not? I’m losing them.”
Nearing three years since her diagnosis, Loughridge is healthy. She is active and making paintings that are familiar to her collectors and fans.
She feels hopeful and positive about her life, and hopes her book will inspire others facing the darkest days of their lives.
“I know this book has helped people already, and I know it’s going to help people in the future. I feel very good about that,” she says.
She encourages those going through treatment to find a way to express feelings.
“You don’t have to be an artist to do this. You just have to be alive and look inward and use your resources,” she says.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be reached at 791-6457 or: