Art with a healing agenda

Cancer survivors check disease at door of inspirational art class

Tehila Eisenstat's art students can talk about mixing color, using shape and mapping out a painting.

"It's like laying out a format," said Mountain View resident Joan Manchester, who has been attending Einsenstat's Creative Expressions classes for over a year.

The students can also tell stories about surgery, radiation therapy or chemotherapy — because all of them live with or are survivors of cancer.

"The wonderful thing about the art class is there is no cancer in that room you can check it at the door," Manchester said.

Eisenstat's students gathered at Main Street Cafe and Books in Los Altos last Friday for a reception for their most recent exhibit, "Out of the Box." The show features several dozen colorfully painted pizza boxes, inspired by Tibetan Buddhist sand mandalas.

"Mandalas are very centered, very healing," Eisenstat said. "And it's outside of the box, because we all need to be out of the box."

The mandala project is just one of many Eisenstat has taught to cancer patients since the inception of Creative Expressions, part of El Camino Hospital's Healing Arts program, in 2003. A successful artist — one of her paintings hangs in the White House — Eisenstat said she started the class purely out of interest.

"It's my absolute pleasure and honor to do what I do," she said.

Her students take their work seriously, and that sincerity is reflected in the art.

Manchester's mandala box is painted purple, with rainbow accents and several white doves.

"To me this is a symbol of peace, and how it's far-reaching throughout the world," she said.

Cathy Smithwick, who in March will be a five-year cancer survivor, has been taking Eisenstat's class for four years. She explained how she mixed colors, and layered them, dark to light, to create her mandala: a contrasting mix of purples, blues, yellows and oranges.

"We paint with acrylics, and so acrylics go from dark to light," she said. "You have to figure out how to come into the light, but not too quickly."

"I've always enjoyed art but I've never physically painted," said Jane Gibson, a Waverly Park resident and breast cancer survivor. "Now I'm getting pretty good."

"I focus on teaching to paint, not on individual pain," Eisenstat explained, though her students say the class gives them much more than art instruction.

"Tehila is so sensitive," Manchester said. "Last week I was in a different place, and she knew I just needed to be left alone and just do my art."

But even though students like Manchester say they can leave cancer behind in art class, the reality of the disease is always with them: Just this past month they lost two classmates to cancer.

"Obviously (her class) is not medicine," said Saul Eisenstat, Tehila's husband, who is a surgical oncologist at El Camino Hospital. "It's not going to make a patient live longer, but it's going to improve their quality of life."

He spoke of one student who recently passed away, noting that "to the very end she wanted to discuss her art."


"Out of the Box," an exhibit of mandalas on pizza boxes painted by cancer patients, is on display through Jan. 31 at Main Street Cafe and Books, 134 Main St., Los Altos. The cafe is open Monday-Saturday, 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. For more information call (650) 948-8040.

Tehila Eisenstat's Creative Expressions art class, part of El Camino Hospital's Healing Arts program, is for cancer patients only and meets at the YMCA (near the hospital) on Tuesdays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. and Wednesdays from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. To register, call the El Camino Hospital Cancer Center at (650) 988-8338.

For more information on Tehila Eisenstat, her artwork or the Creative Expressions program, visit

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