'Reflect, Refocus, Renew': Julie Abijanac seeks to understand cancer via art

Joel Oliphint
Julie Abijanac amid "Reflect, Refocus, Renew" at the James Art Gallery

About 14 years ago, when CCAD professor Julie Abijanac was 36, she found a lump behind her clavicle. It was hard, like a rock, but it had a gritty texture. At first, the doctor she saw told her not to worry about it. But Abijanac wasn’t convinced, so she offered up a hypothetical situation for the doctor to consider.

“I said, ‘I'm your wife, and I found a lump in my neck,’” Abijanac said. “And he looked at me and goes, ‘When do you want to get a biopsy?’”

Doctors removed the lump, which turned out to be cancerous, and Abijanac underwent treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, all while continuing to finish the semester teaching at CCAD. In the classroom, she wore clothing that attempted to hide the tube in her neck where fluid drained. “That class saw someone get diagnosed with cancer, have cancer removed and then start chemo, and these kids, they supported me,” she said. “I’m still connected to many of those students.”

That summer, as Abijanac underwent chemotherapy, she had to confront a new reality as an artist. She was a painter, and yet doctors told her she shouldn't paint anymore. The paints she used — in colors like cobalt blue and cadmium red — contained potentially harmful compounds. And wearing gloves wasn’t an option; it made her feel too disconnected from the work.

But Abijanac is a maker. She had to make something. And so that summer she turned to the craft world, teaching herself to crochet. She fell in love with a brown mohair wool and began sewing fuzzy little spheres, connecting them together and then sewing them onto an oval canvas. Eventually, she had two oval canvases full of the spheres — one a dark brown, one a lighter, mottled brown. She titled the work “Self Portrait.”

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“It’s the sick me, and then the me getting better. But it could also be reversed, like not knowing you're sick and then becoming sick,” said Abijanac, pointing to the piece currently displayed at the James Art Gallery as part of “Reflect, Refocus, Renew,” on view inside the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center through Dec. 19.

This new way of making art was satisfying, but it also made her question the quality of her work, at least initially. “I know how to paint. I understand what it means. I also understand the history of painting because I was taught that. And falling into more of the craft world, where it's paper and fiber and embroidery and beading, I was placing myself in a canon I had no idea about,” she said. “I've done a lot of self-educating and understanding the craft world. … One of the most important things in the craft world, I think, is that the material does make meaning. There’s this transformative moment where it’s one thing, but it also can be something else at the same time.”

After “Self Portrait,” Abijanac continued to create work in which she sought to understand her disease. While doctors worked on mapping her cancer, taking scans to see if it was spreading or staying put, Abijanac undertook her own version of disease mapping, creating a huge, 14-by-5-foot piece out of photocopies of her medical bills.

She listened carefully as her doctors talked about “field stains,” in which a cross section of tissue is put under glass and stained to better see the disease, and then googled “Hodgkin’s lymphoma field stains” to see what they looked like. “I started finding really beautiful design elements in those field stains,” she said, pointing to a piece at the James titled “Pursuit to Take a Life,” an intricately layered sculpture made of paper and nontoxic Elmer’s glue. “This is one design element that I took out of one of the field stains, and I replicated that. There's thousands of individual groups of folded paper that I glued together. I would just sit, cut, fold. It's like a puzzle for me.”

While the creative process helped to take her mind off the health issues, Abijanac said she doesn’t necessarily find it therapeutic. The work is more of an ongoing quest to figure out cancer’s capabilities and growth and design. For instance, a large piece made of black cardstock, “Poumon Noir” (French for “black lung”), arose out of an exploration of lung cancer, which has affected the artist’s friends and family.

For a recent piece titled “Cell Mutation,” which is on display despite still being a work in progress, Abijanac meticulously sewed tiny red beads onto polyfiber spheres wrapped in pantyhose. Like most of the artist’s work in “Reflect, Refocus, Renew,” which was curated by Brandt-Roberts Galleries’ Michelle Brandt (herself a cancer survivor), “Cell Mutation” feels simultaneously formless and defined, and Abijanac is OK with visitors to the James Art Gallery pulling a variety of meanings and feelings out of the work.

“It's a scary thing to hear somebody say, ‘You have cancer,’” said Abijanac, who has been cancer free for about 10 years. “I just want somebody to come in and look at the work, and maybe they don't understand it, but they can meditate on it or find beauty in something that doesn't necessarily have any kind of hyper-realistic quality about it. It's just an abstract form. I want them to connect with that and connect with the structuring of it and maybe fall in love with the patterning. … I hope they walk into this place and walk away feeling something.”

The James Art Gallery

On view through Dec. 19

The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center — James

460 W. 10th Ave., Campus


“Reflect, Refocus, Renew”