Even before her diagnosis, Kirtley was interested in using art as a healing tool, and took a course called “Healing With the Arts” in 2020.
“I thought it could help me with my practice from a spiritual point of view, and help others going through various difficulties,” says Kirtley. She had just begun teaching classes to inclusion groups and crisis centers when a mammogram showed something suspicious, and a biopsy confirmed it was cancer. “I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I just learned these techniques and specifically how to use art for healing purposes,’” she recalls. “I’m so grateful for that.”
Kirtley took her art journal with her everywhere she went to draw and calm her nerves. “Whenever I was feeling sad, frustrated, or angry, I wanted to stop feeling sorry for myself and just use art as that healing tool to generate happiness, curiosity, and creativity,” she says.
A friend referred Kirtley to NewYork-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital, and Kirtley says she instantly liked her care team, which included Dr. Balogun, who is also an assistant professor of clinical radiation oncology at Weill Cornell Medicine; Dr. Vivian Bea, section chief of breast surgical oncology and director of the breast program; and Dr. Evelyn Taiwo, medical oncologist (Drs. Bea and Taiwo are also on the faculty of Weill Cornell Medicine). “I felt listened to,” she says.
Kirtley was drawing in her journal while waiting for a follow-up appointment with Dr. Balogun over the summer when she noticed the walls by Dr. Balogun’s office were bare. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was some artwork?’” She started to picture the work of other patients decorating the wall and got the idea to lead a class for patients. “I liked the idea of a small art gallery to encourage people,” she says. “I felt like we could all use something that would help us — not enjoy the process, but bear it. We can still use creativity and build and make beautiful things, even if we’re going through this uncertainty.”
She broached the idea with Dr. Balogun, who had learned during an earlier visit that Kirtley was an artist. “I jumped at the idea,” says Dr. Balogun. “I’m a lover of the arts, and art therapy has been shown to improve people’s quality of life and their willingness to go through treatment. [Kirtley] is extremely talented, and when she offered to do the art therapy classes, it was a no-brainer.”
Dr. Balogun enlisted the help of her department’s administrator, Kaitlyn Shechtman.
“Dr. Balogun popped into my office saying, ‘We have this idea…,’” recalls Shechtman. “If Dr. Balogun is passionate, it’s easy to be passionate; we all feel it. Then she introduced me to Julia, who radiates positive energy.”