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Exhibit celebrates survivors

| June 9, 2004 12:00 AM

By Paul Boring, Western News Reporter

Becca Martin of Troy has fought cancer head-on, choosing to thrive rather than simply survive.

In 2001, Martin was chosen as one of 12 women storytellers to be paired with artists for the ³Art of Survival, Healing in Life² project. The exhibit opens in Libby on Wednesday following a reception at the Libby library.

Each woman storyteller suffered serious health problems, but had shrugged off their ailments to instead embrace life and turn the weaknesses into strengths.

³I¹m not just surviving, I¹m thriving,² Martin said. ³I think that is so very important. I like the idea of survival, but sometimes you get the idea of surviving is just being able to wake up in the morning. I look at the world differently and discover each day something or someone that makes living worthwhile.²

Merging art and life, the project yielded a dozen beautiful works of art and a 48-page book emphasizing hope for women struggling with dire health conditions.

The exhibition, originally developed by the Women¹s Center at St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, opened in Billings in spring of 2003 and has been traveling around the state. The artworks will be on display at the Libby Library from June 9-25.

In 1976, Martin moved to Troy where she married her husband, Ralph, who was born and raised in the area. Following a tragic car accident that left Ralph paralyzed, Martin left the area after nearly 10 years in Troy and returned to college.

Prior to moving back to Troy in 2001, Martin taught fourth grade at Gallatin Gateway School in Bozeman. She had lived with breast cancer since 1993. It was while teaching that she learned about the ³Art of Survival² project from the mother of one of her students, an artist hoping to be included in the project.

³I went ahead and put my name on the list, and sent it in,² Martin said. ³Sadly, she did not get to be one of the artists, but it turned out that I ended up with an artist who was a parent of mine as well.²

Martin was paired with fellow Bozeman resident, DG House, whose daughter the storyteller had taught years earlier.

³That was wonderful because DG really knew what my philosophy of life and teaching and everything else was,² Martin said. ³We slid in really well that way.²

The process of connecting storytellers with artists took almost one year. Originally slated for an exhibition and possibly a calendar, once the project got under way and the storytellers unburdened their hearts, it became apparent that 12 months would not accommodate the heroic tales of hope and survival.

³They decided they had to do a book,² Martin said. ³This was just too good.²

In 1999, Martin found out that the cancer had returned. The disease had metastasized in her eye and a small gray spot blocking her vision prompted more tests.

³I had proven to the world and to myself that I could beat this,² she said. ³I was a little cocky. Tests showed 12 small tumors in my lungs and a tumor at the T-12 site in my back. I was at Stage IV. I was in disbelief.²

A benefit was held for Martin in October of that year and she left the classroom for good in March.

³I didn¹t want to leave as a so-so teacher, I wanted to leave as a great teacher,² she said.

After three years, the Troy resident is free of tumors and the T-12 vertebrae shows signs of new bone growth and tumor reduction.

Working with House was a cathartic experience for Martin. The sensibilities of the two women merged perfectly and the instant connection was unmistakable.

³When I saw DG, she said, ŒBecca, I¹ve already picked out the canvas. I felt it, I looked at it,¹² Martin said. ³It turned out to be a square, a giant canvas. She said before she even met me she went out and picked out the canvas she needed to do the piece.²

House¹s art blends symbolism from her Cherokee background with contemporary urban images. The talented artist incorporated aspects of Martin¹s life in the painting and included visual representations of her passions.

³I chose not to see my picture until I got to the exhibition,² Martin said. ³When I saw it I was overwhelmed. The hand she put on the painting is so symbolic. As in the Native American tradition, she put her handprint on the canvas and therefore a little bit of her spirit, to ensure we remain partners in a special way forever.²

After being chosen for the project, House began losing her eyesight as a result of diabetes. Afraid to reveal her eye problems to Jane Waggoner Deschner, the Art of Survival project coordinator, House waited and miraculously regained her sight in time to do the painting.

When Martin traveled to Billings to view the works of art, she was floored by the emotions that went into the final products.

³It was so wonderful to go down there and really connect with everyone,² she said. ³Here I was way up in Troy. I¹m the farthest away. To go down there and see people coming from places like Havre and consolidate there, you really get the sense of how isolated rural Montana is.

³I¹m amazed at some of these artists, what they did and how well they did. When you see the artworks and know the storytellers, it sends shivers down your back. I don¹t know how they have that connectedness. It¹s just absolutely fanstastic.²

Martin relishes every day in Troy, spending her time with family and friends. Although she misses the classroom, she knows that she is home.

³I do miss my students like you wouldn¹t believe,² she said. ³At the same time, this has given me time to really look at the things in the world.²