Artist motivated by mom’s cancer diagnosis

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MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) - To understand the art hanging on the walls of The Loft of Missoula - its colorful abstraction and whimsical play - one must first understand the artist, and with the artist, her mother’s story.

Like many children, Sophia Mathis began sketching with pencils when she was 8. The work was good, ripe with creativity and imagination - the youthful expressions of a young girl.

But what once appeared as the common dabbling of a child took a different turn in 2011 when Sophia’s mother, Susi, was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news would shape Sophia’s art, not to mention her mother’s life.

“In the fifth grade, my mom was diagnosed with cancer,” said Sophia, surrounded by her art in The Loft of Missoula last week. “It put me through this phase where it was hard for me. I needed something - I don’t know - to embrace myself with and push myself towards.”

Sophia found that embrace - that distraction - through her art; images of Mickey Mouse, colorful peacocks with swaggering tails and deep forests brooding with things unseen.

More than a dozen pieces went on display in the gallery for First Friday this month. A close review of the panels may reveal Sophia’s own fears as she watched her mother battle her disease.

“My mom was always busy and sleeping and stuff, and I helped take care of her,” said Sophia. “In my free time, I would express and show my appreciation through my art.”

It is not surprising how Sophia’s early work focused on hair. She feared her mother would lose hers through chemotherapy and radiation. Sophia battled her own nervous habit - her need to pull, twist and tease her hair, sometimes unaware she was even doing so.

An early pencil sketch depicts a girl pulling her hair in multiple directions, a frantic rendition not unlike “The Scream” by Edvard Munch. Yet if art is an evolution, the next piece - rendered in acrylics - is more refined. Instead of pulling, the woman depicted in soft elegance simply teases a single lock of blonde hair with her finger.

Sophia, too, was looking to heal.

“I was wondering if she would, like, not have hair,” Sophia said. She then speaks to her mother, as if they have not yet had the conversation. “It was shocking towards me. I was just panicked about you being in the hospital a lot. I know you have to be in the hospital a lot for cancer.”

Susi remembers the date well. It was Sept. 27, 2011, when she got the news. The diagnosis was breast cancer.

The following year would be filled with visits to the hospital; six surgeries and countless rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

While difficult, Susi’s battle with cancer was not the hardest number in the equation. Rather, it was dealing with her daughters and breaking the news.

“It took four days before I could tell them and not choke up,” she said. “I was nervous if they’d wonder if mom would not be around. Breast cancer has changed so much, but that was my fear. What do you tell them? What do you tell your kids?”

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