October 19th, 2020
Alison Rash picks up the phone on the first ring with a genuine cheerfulness in her voice. She assures me that this is a great time for our chat before casually mentioning that she’s currently in a doctor’s office for a chemo appointment. Flustered, I insist that I can call back another time. She brushes my suggestion off with a laugh.
Then again, after six years of battling cancer, Alison Rash is likely comfortable in doctors’ offices. Throughout our conversation, Alison Rash talks candidly about home, art, life, death, and hope. The relative ease in which she discusses the heavy topics in our conversation reveal to me just how much experience she has confronting these big issues.
Reading this conversation with artist Alison Rash, I hope you feel similarly uplifted to hear her talk about the people whose stories inspire her and the art that she’s created in their honor. I hope you find her philanthropic efforts to help those most vulnerable to be heartwarming. But most of all, I hope you find true inspiration in Alison Rash’s personal journey to owning and honoring her own story. Through her inspiring journey, she reminds us all to find value in our own stories.
Gallery MAR: When and how did you realize that you wanted to become an artist?
Alison Rash: Growing up, I was always creating art. My parents were always really supportive of that. I went to Pepperdine to study art, which is actually where I met Maren Mullin. Once I was there at Pepperdine, I knew I wanted to continue to teach art and to pursue my Master’s in art as well.
Gallery MAR: I imagine moving to Malibu to attend Pepperdine after growing up in rural Nebraska must have been quite an interesting transition. How did you navigate this transition and these different realms?
Alison Rash: Well it was so funny… even though Pepperdine was twice the size of my hometown, it didn’t feel too jarring. I think it would’ve been different moving right into a city like LA, but Pepperdine was more secluded. It felt more like summer camp than college. Because it was a little smaller and a little more secluded, I got to know the professors and my fellow students really well. Had I gone to a larger school, it might have been more abrupt of a transition.
After Pepperdine, I moved to LA and lived there for almost 20 years with my husband. However, in California, I was diagnosed with high risk breast cancer for the first time. I never intended to move back to Nebraska, but that’s where my journey has now led me.
Gallery MAR: If you feel comfortable, would you be willing to share with us a little about your journey navigating through your cancer diagnoses, both then and now?
Alison Rash: I actually do feel comfortable talking about it. I was first diagnosed in the Fall of 2014 at the age 34. My kids were then 3 ½ and 1 ½. I’d been in Nebraska visiting family when I noticed a lump under my arm. My doctor did a test. When we got the results back, we originally thought it was stage 2B cancer, so I underwent chemo for it. When it came back that ⅞ of my lymph nodes were affected, we did more radiation. It was then that my husband and I thought that maybe we should move back to Nebraska to be closer to family.
I underwent a couple more months of Biologic therapy. Then months after treatment, we discovered a lump on the lymph nodes of my neck. It was at the end of July 2016 when I relapsed. At that time, I was given a 2-3 year survival rate.
I had received several opinions and, ultimately, ended up going to see a doctor in Houston who does things a little differently. He told me, “I think I can give you a little longer than 2-3 years and there’s a small potential that you could eventually be cured.” So I saw him for treatment for a couple of months and then came back to Nebraska for a couple of months and continued treatment.
I had a Metastatic relapse in May 2017. I just had yet another relapse in April of this year.
There’s still a small potential for a cure, and it’s been 4 years since my metastatic diagnosis, so I’m still beating the odds. I’m back in remission right now. As the doctor I work with says, that just because there’s not a cure today, doesn’t mean there won’t be tomorrow.
Gallery MAR: Wow. Congratulations on beating the odds. We’re so glad to hear you’re currently in remission. I imagine that your journey through your cancer diagnoses has informed the way you approach your art. In your artist statement, you name intuition, the human psyche, and anxiety as major themes in your work. How has your psychological approach to your work evolved since your diagnosis?
Alison Rash: I feel like initially there was a lot of anxiety, especially when finishing treatment the first time. It’s this anxiety over life and death and all of that. I think being diagnostic these past 6 years has made me so much more bold with my art. I trust myself more now. I’m less concerned with what I think someone else wants from me. Instead, I make art that feels really true to myself. I care a lot more about a lot fewer things.
“We often think about what others are going through as valuable, but we tend not to give ourselves the same credit. Giving value to our own lives and own experiences is so powerful.”
Creating art allows me to process a lot about what I experience. At first, I didn’t want to hear any cancer stories, and if I did, I only wanted to hear positive ones. I feel differently now that I’ve been around these people for so long. I’m around fellow survivors all the time. I’ve been with them while they die. It’s interesting to see the evolution of my art through each of those seasons.
Gallery MAR: I understand that your series “Beauty from Ashes” was inspired by real life cancer survivors. Could you talk a little about the original idea behind this series and its significance to you?
Alison Rash: I started to work on a few pieces inspired by people I knew who were going through difficult times and creating something beautiful out of it, especially long-term cancer survivors who made the most of what time they had. I’m really inspired by stories of other survivors.
At that point in my own journey, I was so immersed in that world that I’d gotten to know so many other survivors. I don’t know how you couldn’t be inspired by the people I’m surrounded by. They inevitably made their way into my artwork. I wanted to find a way to honor their stories.
“There are so many things happening in the world, but we can always find something that we can do something about, even if it’s something small.”
Lately, however, I’ve been working on showing more of my own story. In some ways, focusing on someone else’s story is a way to avoid digging into yourself as much. So I loved the process of sharing their stories and how inspired I was by them, but now I’m working on being more self-reflective.
As humans, we often think about what others are going through as valuable, but we tend not to give ourselves the same credit. We think, “Who am I to offer my story?” But giving value to our own lives and own experiences is so powerful. It takes a while to get there. Digging into my own story has become so much easier with time. It’s taken this whole experience to get to this place where I feel comfortable sharing everything about what’s going on with me.
Gallery MAR: You’ve spent the last several months making paintings to help others. The proceeds from your paintings have benefited organizations from nonprofits supporting kids’ services in Nebraska to equality-promoting organizations in LA. Could you talk a little about your philanthropy and what it means to you to give back to your community, especially considering what you’re going through in your personal life?
Alison Rash: Part of this philanthropic effort is that we have been the beneficiaries of such generosity. We have cousins who have helped us out financially, people who have selflessly given to us. We pay for a lot of my cancer treatment out of pocket now because it’s not a standard journey.
This whole “Ripple” series started at the beginning of quarantine. Because of my diagnosis, we have had to stay highly quarantined. It’s been especially overwhelming with all of the things going on in the world. I can no longer get out in the community. I’m stranded at home. But because I’m always home, I can paint. I’ve asked people to donate to organizations helping serve our most vulnerable people. A lot of the organizations we’ve given to have been based out of LA and Nebraska, because those are the places that still feel like home. When people donate directly to the organizations, I send them these small paintings. In the world, it feels like it’s one thing after another right now, so I’m really trying to help those organizations that focus on equality. I’ve also done several different series since then.
“There’s something about using your entire body to create a piece that affirms that you’re still alive.”
The next “Ripple” paintings are going to go towards the wildfires in California. There are so many things happening in the world, but we can always find something that we can do something about, even if it’s something small. For instance, I have a friend who brings us our groceries every week. She just picks up our groceries along with her own. It’s such a small thing but it makes such a big difference in our life. All the hardships in the world don’t feel so overwhelming if you can do something about it.
Gallery MAR: Looking ahead, what are you excited about working on now?
Alison Rash: I’ve been creating larger scale pieces lately. With large scale pieces, I have to reach and stretch out across a canvas. There’s something about using your entire body to create a piece that affirms that you’re still alive. If I accidentally leave a fingerprint in the painting when reaching and stretching across a canvas, I used to remove it or paint over it, but now, I leave it. It’s a mark of “well, I’m still here.”
We would like to extend a big thank you to Alison Rash for taking the time to chat with us about her work and life. We would also like to express our deepest gratitude towards every collector who contributed to bought art by Alison Rash on behalf of our four month initiative to raise funds for Alison Rash’s cancer treatment. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.
Written by Veronica Vale