Sculpting a New Perspective After Cancer

Chaz Martinsen came to stay at the Ulman House in August of 2023 when a cancer diagnosis put his life as a college art professor on hold. Eight months later, he is back in the studio, preparing for his first solo exhibition, ‘Structured Treatment’. Influenced by his experiences with leukemia, treatment, and the Ulman House, the body of work juxtaposes the powerful strength of human connection against the gaping feeling of loneliness.

Enjoy the following interview with artist, Chaz Martinsen, to learn how he followed his inner compass and used art to process his experience with cancer, creating his most personal and emotionally charged work to date.

Group of young adults high-fiving before a run

How has your artistic process or the final outcome of your art been influenced by your experiences with treatment and diagnosis?

“The origins of this body of work have come directly from my experiences with being diagnosed, the process of treatment and the support, as well as the lack of support I received from family, friends and others. This exhibition is a big departure from the kind of research and production of visual artwork that I have been conducting over my career as an educator and artist. Rather than utilizing the ceramic process and digital fabrication, a procedure that requires immense planning, coordination and control, I reacted to this experience by using a standardized, modular unit to create structures that connect together to create a form that focuses on personal connection and yet includes a vast amount of visual negative space, reflecting the lack of support and the feelings of loneliness and emptiness. The entirety of the art making process was intuitive, working on one piece at a time, placing each modular unit where it “belonged”. This process of working intuitively included the creation of the structures, the treatment of the surface with texture, and the floating of color onto the work.

Each sculpture in the exhibition examines the conceptual journey of connection and support, pain and love, helplessness and strength, loss and uncertainty, confusion and heartbreak, that I felt for the last eight months. These feelings persist, and I can foresee that they always will, as I feel my health exists on the edge of a razor. Each check up requires a positive outlook and hopeful demeanor. Yet, somewhere, under all that positive outlook, confidence in the treatment prescribed by my doctor and conducted by the staff at Johns Hopkins, is an existential dread that rears its existence up at random times, requiring me to process, understand, and then control those emotions, which includes allowing those emotions to speak, raw and uncontrolled, for a time. Creating this body of work has been a method for me to process that which I can’t vocalize or transcribe.”

Reflecting on your journey with cancer, both as a person and an artist, what insights have you gained about yourself? Do you see any intersections between these two aspects of your life?

“Those that have known me, even just for a little while, know or soon learn that I have a positive outlook on life, that I enjoy the awe of existence, that I take setbacks in stride, and deal with adversity straight on with a level head. This diagnosis has been the most important and traumatic experience that I have ever undertaken, let alone for those that love me. As an artist, my work has focused on positivity, a hopeful future that blends the synergy of art, science and craft. My life as an artist and a person are one. They are not separate, but unified at a young age as a tinkerer and a maker. Now, as an adult, I have a third aspect added to my life, that of a cancer survivor. While others will identify as a cancer survivor, I don’t see that as an important aspect of my life that defines who I am. It is important to me, as well as to others who I have spent intimate time with, that we are not defined by actions outside of our control. We are people who happen to have been dealt a hand of cards that we did not draw. We are not our diseases.”

What motivated you to support Ulman Foundation with your artistic talent?

“Ulman Foundation was integral to my treatment, which included a procedure that had a statistically recorded percentage of death. The Ulman House was the best place we could have landed, myself and my caregivers, who were my mother and father. It provided the best option for a home away from home. And more importantly, the social aspect of the Ulman House was a key part of making it through the rigors of treatment. Keandra, Andrei, Tom, Heather, as well as others, were going through treatment of their own and staying at the House. Our conversations and time spent together, talking about our diagnosis, playing board games, almost on a nightly basis, talking about the treatment, which many of us were at different points of the process, was essential to understanding that this is doable. If they can do this, I can do this.”

In what ways has art been a companion or tool in navigating your journey through cancer?

“The process of making, or using my hands to create, is part of what defines me as a person. If I go more than a week or two without creating something, not a piece of artwork necessarily, I get weird. I enter a funk, I feel less than, I feel like my compass is spinning and there is no North. While I largely utilize clay and the ceramic process, during my treatment I had to be careful with what materials I used and who I was around. The risk of infection was huge and being around materials that harbored bacteria or other health hazards, that which a “normal” individual can deal with, was out of the question for me. With this change in my life, for six months, I fell back to thinking about the foundations of three dimensional design, a course I have taught many times, which helped me utilize materials that were safe-er for me to build with. The conceptual development of this body of artwork, along with a bit of physical construction or prototyping, was done during treatment. An enormous part of the art making process is thinking and writing, trying to figure out how I feel, what I’m feeling, how I want to express those feelings, and what materials will best serve me to bring the conceptually abstract into a physical reality.The majority of the artwork was completed after all the treatment was concluded.”

Prior to your cancer diagnosis, what artistic pursuits or projects were you involved in?

“Most of the artwork I have produced in my career, prior to my diagnosis, explored two avenues: functional vessels that focused on unique geometry and sculptural work that explores the synergy of art, science and craft. These bodies of work both utilize digital fabrication techniques, largely 3D printing. For the vessels, I used the virtual space of Computer Aided Design to create unique geometry, pushing shapes through space, blending geometric and organic structures, to create unique forms which were then put through the process of mold making and slip casting to create a functional form in the end. The sculptural work also uses 3D printing and the mold making process to create topographical tiles that when placed together, create landscapes of Mars. These images are captured and provided by NASA which is then put through software to create a three dimensional form that explores space, environment, and that an image is not complete without all of its parts.”

Can you describe any changes in your artistic work since your cancer diagnosis? How has the experience impacted your creative expression?

“Overall, this experience has spurred a very different body of work to come to fruition. It has been easy to physically create the artwork. The forms, built intuitively, the surface texture and colors, added slowly to create a misty, soft surface, was simple enough to execute and create. The hard part of this new body of work, has been the conceptual development of the idea, the writing of these very words and the thought that I will be speaking similar ideas at the opening reception during my artist talk, has been exceptionally difficult. The emotions are raw, persistent and fresh, yet fading with time, connections with close people have grown and become stronger, while other connections have collapsed and disappeared with a whimper in space and time, alone and crushing. This is the first body of artwork I have created that has been charged with such emotion and personal experience.”

What message or emotions do you aim to convey to your audience through your art?

“This body of work communicates the importance of support. The importance of a network of people who, truly, care about you, whose actions speak so much louder than words. Those words which are often fleeting and disconnected from one’s actions. While I was hundreds and thousands of miles away from the vast majority of my family and close friends, those who loved me showed up. They were there, without asking, without reservation, all while they endured their own challenges in their lives. Those people love me, and I love them. That is the true meaning of love, being there, unconditionally, without transaction or expectation, without ego, being selfless, to support and help someone through unprecedented and traumatic times in their lives.”

How has Ulman Foundation influenced or supported you since your cancer diagnosis?

“Ulman Foundation has been there for me, beyond the initial sixty-six days of treatment, when I come down to Johns Hopkins for check ups and follow up procedures. I stop by to see friends that work there as well as meet other residents that are there. I lived at Ulman House for those sixty-six days which was long and short at the same time. That duration of time, and the ability to be half a mile from Hopkins, made the treatment process as easy as it could have been. Ulman Foundations mission, creating a community of support for young adults, and their loved ones, impacted by cancer, was integral to making it through treatment and starting my second life. Because of Ulman’s generosity and support, I aim to give back. This includes giving twenty five percent of the sales of my artwork from this exhibition to the Foundation.”

Experience ‘Structured Treatment’ and Meet the Artist!

Attend the reception on Friday, May 17, 2024 from 5pm-7pm, with an Artist Talk at 6pm.

‘Structured Treatment’ will be featured in the Hodson Gallery at Hood College from May 13-31, 2024. Located at Tatem Arts Center, 401 Rosemont Ave., Frederick, MD 21701

25% of sales of Chaz’s artwork at the exhibition will be donated to the Ulman Foundation.


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