To Battle Breast Cancer, Woman Creates Fine Art

By FitzRoy, Maggie | The Florida Times Union, May 5, 2004 | Go to article overview

To Battle Breast Cancer, Woman Creates Fine Art


FitzRoy, Maggie, The Florida Times Union


Byline: Maggie FitzRoy, Shorelines staff writer

Karen Koster Burr's shiny dark brown hair was gone. The medical treatments she was undergoing for breast cancer had taken their toll. But the artist in her looked beyond the despair, beyond the pain and beyond the nausea and the fear. She saw creative possibilities there -- for self-portraits.

"There are many things you can do when you're bald," said Burr, 45, of Atlantic Beach. "I guess I amused myself with it and then it wasn't so distressing."

Burr created her art as a sort of healing therapy throughout as she battled breast cancer while attempting to maintain her life as an intellectual property attorney, wife, and mother of two school-aged children. She will share her artistic creations Saturday at the Cobalt Moon Water Studio in Neptune Beach in a free showing that is open to the public. About seven of her paintings and three of her sculptures will be on display there from 5 to 8 p.m.

In her painting Rebirth, she depicts her bald self as a curled-up fetus.

In Growth Experience, she fuses photographs and paintings to create a garden scene of bald fetuses in various poses: Some are clouds, others are growing out of the ground.

In Heaven and Hell, she depicts herself as a bald, haloed angel and as a screaming, tortured soul. She got the idea for that from a famous painting by Edvard Munch called The Scream.

"In the mirror, I would have fun playing," Burr said. "I was amazed how many ideas you could command with a bald head. Everything from the scream to the Buddhas."

Burr discovered her talent for visual art in the late 1990s when she began sculpting and painting as a hobby. While a student at Yale University, she had majored in theater studies and French literature and was already a talented actress and singer. She once spent a year in France studying at the Sorbonne Institute for Political Science and at La Comedie Francaise.

But in 1997, after she created the bronze sculpture, Balance, which she considers her masterpiece, she began devoting as much free time as she could find in her busy life to art. Some of her creations depicted her family: Balance is a portrait of herself and her husband, John; she also painted portraits of her children, Emily, 10, and Ian, 8.

In January 2003, Burr's world -- and her art -- changed dramatically. A fit, healthy, energetic woman who ate organic foods and worked out, she discovered a bloody discharge from her right breast.

"That was a wonderful red flag," she said. "I would have had no idea. I consider it a blessing."

Burr's doctors at Baptist Medical Center thought at first the cancer was localized, then discovered it had spread to her lymph nodes. She had a mastectomy in February, then a lymphectomy in April. After she recovered from surgery, she underwent chemotherapy. In October, she had reconstructive surgery, underwent a partial hysterectomy and had her ovaries removed. She had her final reconstructive surgery in December.

"I'm lucky I have a lot of energy," Burr said. "I had to kind of look at it as something I had to work into my schedule. The not knowing part, in the beginning, was the hardest."

To deal with her feelings, she started to paint. Her first painting, Dance of Sorrow, portrays a pale, golden figure teetering on one leg, her hair flowing as she's surrounded by cancer cells that convey a sense of feeling and exploding emotion. Nearby is a breast in the shape of a tear drop. …

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