Portraits in Time

Portrait of Irene Farrer painted by her husband Seth.

Steve Farrar loved to paint portraits as an illustration major at Syracuse University in the early 1980s. But after graduating and launching a career in graphic design, Farrar drifted away from his passion for painting people and faces.

He’d just as soon not have had the experience that brought it back: his wife Irene’s breast cancer diagnosis in 2012. 

“A long period passed when I wasn't doing any paintings,” he said. “But with Irene getting cancer, that changed a lot in our lives. For me it meant, I’ve got to get back into this; I need to start doing a painting.”

The project he tackled made up for lost time: a breathtaking 8-foot by 4-foot closeup of Irene when she was in the throes of chemotherapy.

The stunning painting, which hangs in a hallway in the Farrar’s home, has value as art in and of itself. 

But the painting project, along with other steps the couple took, also offer clues for how patients and care-givers can survive the emotional trauma of a cancer diagnosis, said Kathy McBeth, a psychologist and cancer survivor at the UVM Cancer Center who specializes in working with cancer patients and their loved ones.

See and Be Seen

The photo session of Irene that Steve conducted—to capture the image he would paint—might have seemed arduous for someone in the thick of cancer treatment. “He took lots of photos and directed me on how to sit and where to look,” Irene said. But the experience was relaxing, she said. 

That statement hints at something profound, says McBeth: how important it is for cancer patients to be seen as they are without disguising their feelings. 

“It’s an incredible thing to have that experience, to not feel that you have to shy away from that, that you can be that vulnerable,” she said.  

Steve’s experience was also emotionally meaningful, as anyone who experiences the painting can see, McBeth says. In the dark colors he chose and his focus on Irene’s soulful eyes, Steve is revealing his own feelings. 

“Even though the wife was the one who was going through treatment, the husband was also feeling hurt and sad for her. His own heart was a little bit on the gray side.” 

For care-givers, expressing those feelings is vital for emotional health, she said. 

“The lesson is to not be shy about letting your feelings be known,” she said “The idea of showing that vulnerability in the face of somebody we love; we're not trying to candy coat it, we're recognizing that those things matter, feelings matter.”

'Not Going to Control Us'

For Steve and Irene, the painting also represents something else: the importance of rolling up your sleeves and getting to work on recovery

“We said, OK, this is not going to control us,” Steve said. 

The painting was one way of taking action. Another was the deep commitment to fitness the couple embraced in the form of Dragon Boat racing. When Irene began the program weeks after finishing radiation therapy, she could barely lift the paddle. Today, she is one of Dragonheart Vermont’s top competitors. 

The community she and Steve formed with the other Dragon Boaters, and the fit new body she now inhabits, were a “silver lining” to her cancer diagnosis, said Irene, who is also a graphic designer. 

“You don't know what the outcome is going to be, but it’s possible your life could be better. I feel like my life is so much more interesting now.”

Painting of a woman sitting in an arm chair flexing her arm muscles, entitled "Muscleman Posture",

Steve celebrated Irene’s commitment to exercise and health in a second portrait. 

One afternoon in the spring of 2020 during a family photo session with Irene and the couple’s two daughters, Irene looked so vibrant, Steve asked her to make a “strong pose,” she said.

The muscleman posture she struck became a bookend to the first painting—and a fitting symbol for the journey the couple took together.

“There are no magic words, there's no magic bullet” for getting through cancer, McBeth said. “What’s most important is to be honest with your feelings and let that shine, let that come forward, because that’s what matters.”

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