Carmen George

Healing garden grows in Fresno for those affected by cancer

Cancer survivor and Art of Life board president Jenna Sawdon-Bea, center, holds a flower she created with the help of her husband, Anthony, and daughters, from left, Jordyn, Makayla and Payton.
Cancer survivor and Art of Life board president Jenna Sawdon-Bea, center, holds a flower she created with the help of her husband, Anthony, and daughters, from left, Jordyn, Makayla and Payton. Special to The Bee

More than 80 works of art created by cancer survivors will be on display Sunday afternoon during a festival to celebrate a new healing garden for those affected by cancer in Fresno’s Woodward Park.

The image of a large flower will adorn one canvas, created by Jenna Sawdon-Bea, her husband and three young daughters.

“Sometimes you get knocked down,” she says of battling breast cancer a couple years ago, “but you come back up out of that dark time … out of the dirt, and you grow into this beautiful flower.”

That idea – flourishing in beauty and joy where there was once fear and hurt – is at the core of the Art of Life Healing Garden.

“So much of life is about choice,” Sawdon-Bea says. “Do you want to celebrate life today or do you want to have a gloomy day? With the Art of Life, the focus is to celebrate life and move forward.”

The festival from noon to 4 p.m. will mark the completion of the first phase of the three-acre garden, being developed by the Art of Life Cancer Foundation.

The city approved the nonprofit’s request to create the garden in February. So far, the group has raised around $250,000 of a $1 million goal.

With that money, the group has graded and created trails, installed an irrigation system, planted trees and bought one of several planned art kiosks, where art created by cancer survivors will be permanently displayed. The first kiosk should be installed in October.

“We’ve prepped the canvas,” Art of Life Executive Director Jenelle Higton says of what has been done so far. “Phase two is bringing all the elements to the garden.”

Art of Life was founded in 2007 by Dr. Christopher Perkins, medical director of California Oncology, in the hope of inspiring people battling cancer in the central San Joaquin Valley. Through the foundation, around 500 cancer survivors have met with 21 artistic directors who provide material and guidance in creating art.

Sawdon-Bea, who teaches at Fresno State and is the Art of Life foundation’s board president, was first approached to create a piece of art in 2013 while she was undergoing chemotherapy.

She says creating her flower helped her family talk about cancer in a “better light,” which in turn helped with the healing process.

“We know, based on research, that art is healing,” Higton says. “It actually boosts the immune system in such a way that there is actual positive, physiological effects related to doing something positive. … It allows them to take the ugliness of cancer and focus instead on the beauty that came from it – relationships made, truths about life that maybe became more real.”

The nonprofit is looking for more donations to fund future projects in the garden. The group has plans to install a “playscape” for children; more art kiosks; an amphitheater adorned with tiles created by community members; a labyrinth, a maze-like circular path through lavender; and “reflection areas,” benches on the bluffs surrounded by foliage from behind where people can gaze across the San Joaquin River.

Sawdon-Bea looks forward to seeing the garden continue to grow.

“As a cancer survivor who turns to the outdoors in time of both difficulty and joy, I believe this healing garden will serve as an oasis and source of support for individuals and families to connect, find peace, and celebrate life.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

Celebrate and support the Art of Life Healing Garden

A festival and groundbreaking for phase two of the three-acre Art of Life Healing Garden in Woodward Park for those affected by cancer will be held from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 27. The garden can be accessed from Woodward’s north gate at Friant and Fort Washington roads in northeast Fresno. Entrance fee is $5 per car. Cancer survivors are invited to help cut the ribbon during a 12:45 p.m. ceremony and will be the first to walk on a new cancer ribbon trail. Sunday’s event will also feature art-making activities, food, entertainment, items to purchase from the Art of Life Store, and the unveiling of a large artwork that combines more than 3,000 pieces of art.

Help the garden continue to grow by donating to the project or becoming a volunteer. The nonprofit Art of Life Cancer Foundation has raised around $250,000 of a $1 million goal. More information about how to help is available on the group’s website at artoflifecancer.org or by calling 559-301-5606 or 559-905-8504.

Create art for the garden in ongoing programs available through Art of Life. More information is available at artoflifecancer.org. Cancer survivors meet in a small group with an art director who provides materials and guidance in creating art.

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