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Mitchell used art to cope with breast cancer diagnosis

(May 7, 2015) Although Berlin resident Lisa Mitchell has been painting for less than a year, her vivid and whimsical artwork tells a powerful story that stands in stark, almost defiant contrast to the diagnosis doctors saddled her with several years ago.  
Mitchell, whose work is on display this month at Baked Dessert Café in Berlin and will be featured during the town’s 2nd Friday art stroll on Friday, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. After a brief period of remission, she relapsed in 2012.
Kate Cashman, owner of the Random Juxtaposition gallery in Ocean Pines, was the first to suggest art therapy as a means to cope with the illness.
“We’ve known each other for years,” Mitchell said. “Our kids go to school together, we go to church together, and she’s been trying to get me to take classes [in art],” Mitchell said. “She had cancer and she said it could be something that could be therapeutic for me to do.”
Mitchell balked at the suggestion, but acquiesced after Cashman gave her a gift certificate for art classes.
Initially, she did “really abstract work … just throwing things and making shapes,” Mitchell said.
While researching other types contemporary art, Mitchell slowly evolved into the style represented on the walls of Baked Desserts Café: brightly colored figures and faces with quirky, almost caricaturized features that evoke a childlike sense of humor and wonder.
“I look at my work and I don’t think of it as being particularly artistic or creative or anything like that,” she said. “I was looking at different art websites, trying to get different ideas, and finally I saw a couple I liked and thought, this doesn’t look like it’s too challenging. I could probably paint pictures that looked like people I would know. “
Soon enough, she was inundated with requests.
“People would say, ‘Oh, can you make a picture of me and my boyfriend?’ or, ‘Can you paint my daughter and myself?’ I just thought it would be cool to try to capture some of these people. It was just something to keep me busy to keep my mind off of having cancer,” she said.
“Before I started making art, less than a year ago, it seemed like everything in the day would be cancer, cancer, cancer,” Mitchell said. “It was amazing if I could go a couple of hours without the word ‘cancer’ coming into my head. Now it seems like I can go a whole day without really thinking about it, so it does keep your mind off of it.”
Mitchell also has two children, twins, set to graduate from high school this year, which tends to keep her busy when she’s not painting.
“It’s a lot of juggling, helping them guide their futures and then trying to maintain normalcy in their life because their mom has cancer,” she said. “I don’t want them to think, ‘Oh my gosh, my life is going to end.’ I want them to just feel like their future is what they should focus on.”
In December, Cashman mentioned to Mitchell that Baked Desserts featured different artists each month. She booked the show, but at the time she only had two paintings in the series, which she admittedly did not take that seriously.
 “When the opportunity came to display my work, I’m thinking, really? It just seemed weird to me,” she said. “I’m just very critical.”
Still, she worked fast, usually spending five hours or less – a few days work – on each painting. Before long, she had enough to fill an entire wall.
Despite the intriguing circumstances surrounding her artwork, Mitchell insists she does not have any grand vision or ulterior motive or message behind her paintings.
 “I don’t want it to be something that’s deep and makes people think. I just want it to be something that … it could be in a hair salon or in a kid’s room or in a café. I just want to make people happy,” she said.
Berlin’s 2nd Friday festivities feature more than a dozen different art displays in shops throughout the downtown region, along with sales and specials in area restaurants from 5-8 p.m.