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From Isolation to Collaboration

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That title of Doug Calisch’s work at the Cancer Center at Ball Memorial Hospital is a fitting description of the professor’s artistic journey. From early sculptures in wood to his work with "found" objects in the Appalachians to this latest project with cancer patients and their families, Calisch’s art is increasingly collaborative.

And risky—giving up control up front and trusting his gift to make art of it all at the end.

"The idea of collaboration really interests me as an artist," Calisch says, "This challenges me, making everything work artistically."

WM: Back in August when your work with the Cancer Center began, you said that "compared to this project, my other work seems self-absorbed."

Calisch: This statement was about art that truly reaches others, as opposed to art that is self-satisfying. Both are important forms of visual expression, and this project seems to have both.

You’ve said that listening to patients’ stories had a powerful emotional impact on you.

That’s still very true. I internalized those stories each week—they rattled around in my body, triggering emotional responses that led eventually to creative energy. I believe the desire to create comes from life experiences. This was a life-altering experience for me.

At first, donations of objects came pretty slowly?

Until I was accepted as an insider, people were reluctant to participate. As time went by and I established my presence at the Cancer Center, the donations began to increase. During the slow times, I used some of my own stuff—objects that had belonged to my father, who had cancer. When people found out that I was intimately connected to the cancer community, they began to respond.

By allowing others to donate the items you fashioned into this work, you gave up a lot of control.

At first I was disappointed to be working with smiley-face buttons, Livestrong bracelets, and pink ribbons; but over time, there developed a necessary balance between the objects that our society says are appropriate for grieving and acknowledging cancer and the kinds of things that individuals needed to contribute. I came to understand that the aesthetic balance was a truthful "look" based on what the wall represented. My parameters as an artist were challenged, and I think I’m better for it.

The dedication of this project had to be like no art opening you’ve ever attended: there was a reverent hush as people looked at the piece, and some patients and family members wept as they looked at the tiles together.

I was nervous. There had been grumbling during the week since I’d installed the piece; a couple of people were unhappy with "their" tiles.

I wrote my remarks for the dedication as a way to teach a bit about the purpose of the project and to suggest "how" to look at it and think about the piece.

I was overwhelmed to see people weeping, standing in silence, rubbing meaningful objects. It was amazing.

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