The power of art to bring meaning: Brianne Urzada, Michele Sereda Artist-in-Residence 2020

By University Advancement and Communications Posted: July 30, 2020 1:00 p.m.

Brianne Urzada’s tiles coloured with alcohol ink.
Brianne Urzada’s tiles coloured with alcohol ink. Photos: Brianne Urzada

At 23 years old, Brianne Urzada BEd’12, BA’14 was newly married and had just begun a career in arts education when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Over the next eight months, while undergoing six rounds of chemotherapy, Urzada decided to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time artist.

“I was told my entire life that I had to do something else while making art, and that I wouldn’t be able to make a career out of art,” she says.

With great determination, not only did Urzada beat cancer, but she also became a successful artist.

During her last two rounds of chemo treatments, Urzada returned to the U of R in 2013, and completed a second bachelor’s degree with a major in visual arts. A year later, with the cancer in remission, and shortly after giving birth to her first child, Urzada launched Arthouse – a small business where she works as a commissioned artist and teaches free art classes to cancer patients and survivors.

Recently, Urzada was selected as the 2020 Michele Sereda Artist in Residence for Socially Engaged Practice, and began the residency in January 2020. Created by the Faculty of Media, Art, and Performance in 2015, the residency honours the memory of Sereda, who, along with four others, was tragically killed in a highway crash. This year, the residency, which includes a stipend of $10,000, is a partnership between the Faculty of MAP and the Faculty of Nursing.

“This residency offers artists networking and researching opportunities, and is supported by both faculties involved,” says Dr. Kathleen Irwin, Professor in the Faculty of MAP. “In turn, the artist brings their skill, expertise, and knowledge to the University, as well as a link to the community.”

During the residency, Urzada engaged 50 cancer patients in rural Saskatchewan in a collaborative art project.

“Brianne’s life story is challenging and relevant, and touches everyone who talks to her,” says Dr. Irwin. “Not only is she a survivor of cancer, she is someone who turned that experience into a very rich and generous artistic practice.”

Indeed, one of Urzada’s art shows, Five Stages, created in 2015 in collaboration with photographer Kiriako Latridis, raised $47,000 for cancer care through Hospitals of Regina Foundation, and $16,000 for the Allan Blair Cancer Centre. Urzada also secured funding from the Power of Pink to be able to offer free art classes to cancer patients and survivors in Regina.

“A lot of people in my art classes are living with a terminal disease, which is really heartbreaking,” says Urzada, fighting back tears. “Yet, we can all come together and laugh and make light of the situation. It’s still really hard, but we give each other hope. We have a shared understanding and experience, so just being in one another’s presence is a gift.”

Having grown up on a farm outside Yorkton, Urzada wanted to extend this gift of community to cancer patients living in rural Saskatchewan. As part of the Michele Sereda residency, Urzada sent art kits to 50 rural cancer patients who had signed up to participate in the project. The kits included four tiles and the art supplies needed to colour them with ink. Each participant also received a video tutorial that featured Urzada and an art therapist. The participants were asked to paint all four of the tiles and return two of them to Urzada, who has since incorporated them, along with additional tiles that she has coloured, into a large-scale mosaic. The final piece depicts an image of an MRI scan of Urzada’s upper body in a cancer-free state, five years post-treatment.

Participants were also sent a short survey that asked: If you were a colour, what colour would you be; if you were a pattern, what pattern would you be; and, what symbolizes hope for you?

“Aside from their experiences with cancer, the participants are not connected in any way,” says Urzada. “Yet, many said they wanted to be symmetry. So, I have taken their suggestion and have ensured that the mosaic has a sense of symmetry involved.”

Urzada says one of the reasons that she chose the five-year, cancer-free MRI image is because it could be a representation of anyone’s body.

“In the end, what’s important about this piece is that it incorporates my reflection of my experience, along with input from the participants about their own experiences. It’s a piece that symbolizes community and hope, and light on the other side,” she says.

Urzada appreciates that through the residency she was able to engage cancer patients in rural Saskatchewan. She hopes the participants benefited from a sense of connection and time away from the stress in their lives.

“I think that art has the potential to make meaning in people’s lives,” says Urzada. “Living in a rural setting, you can feel alone, and I think it’s a good reminder that there are other people in their situation going through the same thing. For me, art is meditation. It’s where I’m able to focus only on the present. I really loose track of everything else, and I think that is therapeutic. And that can be a comfort and help to people during challenging times.”

As a cancer survivor, Urzada says that the project has also provided her with the added benefit of finding closure.

“Up until now, a lot of my artwork has been centred around the healing process and the trauma that comes with living life post-cancer,” says Urzada. “After this mosaic is complete, I would like to explore other things. I’ll never move on from my experience of having had cancer, but I will grow and change, and I think my next body of work will look quite a bit different.”

As the final stage of her residency, Urzada will oversee the hanging of the completed mosaic, which will be on display in the Archway Gallery in the Dr. John Archer Library when the University is once again open to the public. 


Honouring the memory of alumna Michele Sereda

Michele Sereda Artist-in-Residency announced

Changing the way we see people who live ‘in the margins’ of society