Art Brut: Cancer Journey Ignites New American Dream

By Pat Carragher - November 13, 2023

You would be forgiven if you walked into Miriam Abascal Zimms’ home and forgot you were in someone’s house. Inside the doors, you’re instantly greeted by art from floor to ceiling. Whether it’s pieces she made, from Santa Fe or her native Guatemala, the variety is enough to make the waterfront views of Lutz’s Lake Brant the second-most visually impressive part of the property.

When you turn the corner, there is a row of world masks adorning the wall. Just below, you notice the sink and refrigerator and are reminded that this is, in fact, someone’s home and not a live-in art gallery.

That art just may be Zimms’ life, though.

It was not always that way. Zimms has been on a long journey to get to where she is today.

A first-generation immigrant, Zimms left her native Guatemala in 1971 when she was 4. Along with her mother, Rosa, the two set out for America hoping to create their own version of the American dream.

Chapter 1: Her Mother’s Dream

If Zimms’ life were a book, the first chapter would be her mother’s version of that dream.

“I always had this creative side to me as a child,” Zimms said. “But I couldn’t tell my mother I wanted to go to New York and be on Broadway.”

She doesn’t remember much from those first few years in the United States, but she remembers her mother working hard and persevering in the face of discrimination.

"I always had this creative side to me as a child. But I couldn’t tell my mother I wanted to go to New York and be on Broadway."

- Miriam Abascal Zimms

To honor her mother’s dreams, Zimms embarked on a career in business. She worked as a consultant in solid waste management for county governments, corporations and institutions, helping to plan their conservation and sustainability strategies. She took great pride in running zero-waste and waste reduction programs.

She was making the planet a better place for future generations.

Sadly, Zimms was not far into her career when her mother passed. Zimms was just 26. Her mother was 58 when she died from metastatic breast cancer.

Three other women on her mother’s side had also been diagnosed with either skin cancer, breast cancer or both. And her maternal grandfather had passed away from stomach cancer.

Zimms knew her risks. She started doing self-breast exams immediately. Once a month. Every month. She also got annual MRIs.

For 17 years, she found nothing. Two hundred straight self-exams. Everything status quo.

Until one day in 2010, when she became the fifth woman in her family to have that dreaded realization.

She found a lump in her left breast.

From Dream to Darkness

“I was not shocked,” she said. “But I was surprised.”

The diagnosis was triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC). She was 43.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I really have done everything I was supposed to do,’” she said. “I embraced a wellness lifestyle. I exercised. I was eating healthy because I saw the women in my family go from being fit, healthy women to their bodies changing when they hit menopause.”

Zimms came to Moffitt Cancer Center for her treatment.

Up first was three months of chemotherapy. Once that was finished, she underwent a double mastectomy and the start of breast reconstruction to begin the process of feeling whole again. Reconstruction required four surgeries over the course of three years to complete. She worked through it all.

During that time, through genetic testing, she learned she had a BRCA1 mutation. With a newly discovered risk for ovarian cancer, Zimms had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.

A few months after recovering from surgery, something still didn’t feel right. She brought up her concerns to her surgeons, John Kiluk, MD, and Philippe Spiess, MD, who called for a CT scan of her lower body.

That scan revealed a suspicious spot on her pelvis. The initial fear was that her breast cancer had spread.

“When that biopsy came back, I got a phone call saying, ‘Do you want the good news or the bad news?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’d like the good news first,’ and the good news was that it was not metastatic TNBC,” Zimms recalled. “But the bad news was that I had chondrosarcoma, primary bone cancer.”

If her first cancer diagnosis was surprising, this new diagnosis was a full-blown shock.

Miriam Abascal Zimms
Zimms found herself in a dark place during her recovery from chondrosarcoma, which had followed months of treatment for breast cancer. A chance visit to Moffitt's Arts in Medicine studio introduced her to the Zentangle art style that would transform her life.

There had been little to no time to separate from the breast cancer, months of chemotherapy and all the surgeries, but she couldn’t take a break now. Her life was on the line.

Zimms underwent an internal hemipelvectomy. She had the majority of her left pelvis, hip ball and top part of her femur removed.

What followed was seven months of bed rest with in-home physical therapy, then one and a half years of additional in-home physical therapy. A lifetime of physical therapy became part of her new full-time job.

“The surgery saved my life,” Zimms said. “But it left me with the inability to use my left leg and took away many of the things I used to do. I’ve had to modify the way I live, including my energy level of productivity.”

During the months of not being able to leave her bed, the negative thoughts crept in.

“I felt like a helpless baby,” she said. “I needed a full-time caregiver to help me with everything. That was when I started to think about the loss of my primary female body parts. My breasts, fallopian tubes, ovaries and now my left pelvis.”

She was depressed. She was down. She was angry.

She describes the feeling as being on a bus. She was on her journey exploring how to live life after breast cancer. Suddenly, someone slammed on the brakes.

“The last four years just came flying forward,” she said. “And I had to deal with it.”

It was the darkest time in her life.

Then Moffitt’s Arts in Medicine program brought out a light in Zimms that had been dormant for decades.

‘A Process That Opens People Up’

The Arts in Medicine program started in 1998 and celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

It began with a single artist and a cart full of art supplies. Frances Falk was the program’s first coordinator, serving in the role from 1998 to 2003. Falk would visit patients at their bedsides and in the lobbies and waiting areas, bringing art directly to the people.

Later that first year, the program added a musician and transitioned into an open studio for patients to visit while they were undergoing treatment.

The program is based off an expressive arts model. The idea is to use art for healing and self-discovery.

“Our artists and musicians are not practicing as therapists,” explained Amanda Bonanno, the program’s current coordinator. “They’re not coming up with goals or treatment plans. The control is all in the hands of the participant.”

portrait of blockquote author

"No one is going to interpret or impose any meaning on the artwork that is made. As a result, it’s oftentimes a process that opens people up to sharing, and that is their choice."

- Amanda Bonanno, Arts in Medicine Program Coordinator

Bonanno joined Moffitt as the Arts in Medicine coordinator in 2016. She believes the open-endedness of the program gives patients the ability to feel free in their expression.

“No one is going to interpret or impose any meaning on the artwork that is made,” Bonanno said. “As a result, it’s oftentimes a process that opens people up to sharing, and that is their choice.”

Today, the program has seven artists-in-residence sharing both visual art and music across three Moffitt locations. That includes two art studios for anyone to visit during their time at Moffitt. True to the program’s origins, the artists still use the art carts to visit patients right where they are.

Chapter 2: An Artist Emerges

Zimms had visited the art studio at Moffitt’s Magnolia campus some during her breast cancer treatment. But during her recovery from hip surgery, something magical happened.

Marcia Brown was the artist-in-residence working in the studio that day. She had brought over a few projects to try, including Zentangle art, a creation of patterns using a repetition of dots, lines, curves and orbs.

Zimms initially declined. The rehabilitation process she was going through was brutal. She had to learn to sit, stand and walk again. The most basic movements came with a combination of pain and fear that was often overwhelming.

“I wasn’t in a space of wanting to put anything dark on paper,” she said. “It all felt so dark. But that’s the space I was in.”

That’s when Brown had the idea to flip the script. Instead of having Zimms put black ink on white paper, Brown suggested using a white pen on black paper.

Zimms took the supplies home, and the rest is history.

“At that point in my life, people were giving me books and all this big stuff to do at home, and I was not in a mental space to absorb any of that,” she said. “So I needed something small and fast.”

What followed was 300-plus pieces of Zentangle art tiles. People around Zimms quickly took notice.

“My husband and my stepdad would tell me I was really talented,” Zimms said. “But then one of the Moffitt artists asked me to start bringing some of my pieces in and said, ‘Wow, Miriam, you’re really doing something special here.’”

Miriam Abascal Zimms’ Zentangle art
Zimms describes her artistic style as “art brut,” a French term that refers to pieces made outside of the traditional definition of fine art.

The decision was made to showcase Zimms’ art in Moffitt’s Healing Arts Gallery, which features art made by patients, families and staff. Each of her 300 pieces was framed and displayed for over a year. The pieces told the story of Zimms’ journey. From her breast cancer to chondrosarcoma. They are tributes to her husband, Mitch Kessler, and Moffitt, as well as loss, pain and suffering.

“I did get a lot of feedback from doctors, and people would write me saying that they would stop and look at it. It really did a lot of healing,” Zimms said. “Not just for the patients and families, but for team members who would stop every day on their way to the parking lot. It really touched a lot of people’s lives.”

Zimms left her career in waste management to focus on her chondrosarcoma recovery. Cancer may have taken that part of her life from her, but it ended up unlocking something different.

“I believe that allowed the left brain to shut down,” she said. “And what had been there when I was younger and very creative was allowed to completely blossom and show its face.”

Local libraries started noticing her work and invited her to host shows and speak to art groups.

“People started to ask me if they could purchase this piece or that piece,” she said. “That’s when things really started happening.”

Zimms suddenly found an additional life purpose as an artist and teacher of the Zentangle method and expressive arts, contributing greatly to her own healing. 

Arts commissions started calling. She was connected with Arts4All Florida, an organization that pairs artists with disabilities with galleries throughout the state. To date, her art has appeared in 10 galleries in Florida.

Zimms now spends her days working on new art projects and teaching Expressive Tangling, a combination of Zentangle and expressive arts, to groups both locally and virtually across the country. Although she still deals with chronic pain, PTSD and anxiety, her feelings of depression are no longer constant. They have begun to come and go.

She describes her artistic style as “art brut,” a French term that refers to pieces made outside of the traditional definition of fine art. Also known as outsider art, it’s often self-taught or discovered following a major loss or health impact.

In her art, Zimms has also started focusing on larger pieces, applying repetitive patterns using tangling strokes to showcase a theme of body loss. It’s a theme she knows all too well.

Zimms has 17 scars on her body to document her journey. Each of those 17 scars are showcased in her art.

“Body loss stays with us,” she said. “When there’s a piece of our physical body that’s been removed, it’s traumatic.”

A Legacy That Lives On

If chapter 1 of her life story was her mother’s American dream, this was chapter 2. It was her American dream.

“It’s really an opportunity that came into my life thanks to the Arts in Medicine studio at Moffitt,” she said. “It came at a time that I needed something to give me purpose. It was a gift and a blessing.”

Zimms and her husband believe in the healing power of the arts, and they have become generous supporters of the Arts in Medicine program. They want to make sure all patients have access to these types of holistic support programs. In June 2022, they donated a piano to the cancer center in honor of Jerry Kessler. It now sits in the lobby of the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation Outpatient Center with the intent of providing joyful music for years to come.

Zimms is now 10 years’ chondrosarcoma free and 13 years’ breast cancer free. She has yearly follow-up scans to keep an eye out for any signs of new disease.

“I witnessed my mother’s courage. I gained my knowledge and strength through her experience and then through my own,” Zimms said. “Even though she passed when I was young, her legacy is carried inside of me. And no one can take that away from me. Not even cancer.”

Miriam Abascal Zimms’ Zentangle art
Zentangle art is a creation of patterns using a repetition of dots, lines, curves and orbs. For Zimms, the artistic technique opened up a creative part of her that contributed to her healing.

This article originally appeared in Moffitt’s Momentum magazine.

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