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HELPING KIDS UNDERSTAND CANCER

By LINDA G. RASTELLI

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Five years ago, artist Nanci Hersh, then 42, was struggling with how to tell her three- and five-year-old boys that she had breast cancer.

“I didn’t want them to hear it from someone else. I had to tell them, but I didn’t want to scare them,” she says. “It’s hard to know how much information to give.”

Hersh shared her concerns with her cousin, Ellen McVicker, a special education teacher in Colorado. McVicker, in turn, wrote a story about a woman telling her young son that she has cancer. She emailed it to Hersh.

“Ellen wrote a beautiful story,” Hersh recounts. “She said, ‘Maybe one day you’ll illustrate it,’ but I didn’t really see that coming. I just said, ‘Well, maybe.’”

Well, maybe not. A mixed media artist whose work has been exhibited across the United States, as well as in Australia and Japan, Hersh says she had “no interest” in illustrating a children’s book.

“I didn’t know how,” she said last week during an interview in her studio, housed above the garage in her Fairview home. She also hadn’t done any illustration since her undergrad days at Pratt Institute more than 20 years before.

Rather, Hersh’s work integrates “snippets of things” such as old books and her children’s outgrown clothing to create “visual journeys” of what’s going in her life.

“I like textures, lines, tools, found objects, turning the ordinary into extraordinary,” she says. Inside her house is a coffee table made from a vintage door, with the doorknob still attached.

At the time of her cancer diagnosis, she was experimenting with the idea of women’s work. She combined images of iron burns with pictures cut out from an old gardening book that showed white-gloved women spraying insecticides.

“It just seemed perfect,” she says of the work. “Here’s these women trying to eradicate bugs by spraying something toxic.” The parallels to her battle with cancer were compelling. “They’re trying to eradicate breast cancer,” she says of the figures.

Cross sections from a tree chopped down by a neighbor provided further inspiration. “They resemble breasts, and they’re about the loss of a limb,” she explains. “Coming to terms with having part of your body cut out.”

Hersh visited her cousin in Colorado, where McVicker continued urging her to illustrate the story. Hersh reluctantly agreed, but wondered if she was the right person for the task, and kept dragging her heels on getting started. The following summer, though, “Ellen visited me in New Jersey and said, ‘If you don’t do it, I’ll get somebody else.’ I knew I was supposed to do it then.”

Last year Hersh finally illustrated the story, titled “Butterfly Kisses and Wishes on Wings.”

To prepare, Hersh spent time perusing children’s books, determining what she did not want. “I wanted the book to be uncluttered. Often with a difficult topic, (illustrators) make the people animals, like dinosaurs,” she says. “I knew I wasn’t going to have cute cartoon characters; it’s just not how I draw.”

The book’s illustrations are gouache with watercolor pencil prints of a mom, her son, and a butterfly that serves as a kind of good luck charm. The story explains that cancer is not contagious, not anyone’s fault, and having bad feelings about it is normal. Hersh says her three-year-old, Nate, once told his surprised teacher, “My mommy’s having surgery; she has bad cells.”

Hersh’s doctor, Dr. Beth Deutch, director of HerSpace: Breast Imaging Associates in West Long Branch, helped McVicker to explain cancer treatment simply. She invited Hersh to curate a show in 2003 and chose her “Chrysalis 2,” an etching and aquatint, to represent the annual “Art of Survival, an exhibit by women artists that have been touched by breast cancer,” at Herspace. Money goes to the Diney Goldsmith Breast Cancer Research and Treatment Foundation. “Art of Survival” also became a book, published in 2006.

The women made a few efforts to find a publisher, but decided to focus on selling the book directly to large groups and to the public through the book’s website. The response, says Hersh, has been “heartwarming.”

Eight giclées from the self-published book — as well as six mixed media pieces — can now be seen (and purchased) at No Ordinary Joe’s coffeeshop on Broad Street.

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When she was hanging her artwork there last week, a customer commented that the work, although done in very different media, was clearly by the same person.

“I felt like hugging him! I never know if other people see it. All my work is connected,” she says, “It’s all close to my heart. He told me it was ‘joyful,’ and I had never seen my work that way, but I want it to be.”

Cancer hasn’t changed the way she works, Hersh says, but it has helped her focus on how she can help others touched by the disease.

“Cancer helped me slow down a little and teach me not to be so hard on myself. I tell people to let yourself heal,” she says with a wry smile. “You get to lie around and let people help you, which helps them, too.”

Hersh grew up in Middlesex county, visited Hawaii after her college graduation and wound up staying for 11 years before returning to New Jersey to marry Scott Dight, with whom she has two children, Nate and Griffin. Her art is in the collections of The Contemporary Museum, Honolulu, the Honolulu Academy of Arts, and the corporate collections of Johnson & Johnson and Kaiser Permanente, among others.

She’s considering another collaboration with her cousin, “When Someone You Love Has Died,” but is unsure what’s next. Hersh points to a photo on the wall of her studio of a life preserver floating in a pool taken during a trip to Hawaii. “I swim a lot and I’ve been thinking about what keeps us hanging on — tools for getting through your life,” she says.

Playing around in her studio is how Hersh finds her creativity.

“This is the stuff,” she says, “that primes my pump.”

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