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Local artist’s incurable cancer diagnosis refocuses her creative output

  • 5 min to read
Local artist’s incurable cancer diagnosis refocuses her creative output

Betina Johnson has a lot of art in her closet. After retiring 10 years ago, she immersed herself in an artist's life, focusing on creating whimsical, layered paintings, primarily of animals she recalls from childhood.

In December 2017, that life was disrupted unexpectedly when Johnson was diagnosed with Mantle Cell Lymphoma, a rare form of incurable cancer. She began treatment in January, and said during the first six months of treatment, she had some of her darkest thoughts and was at her lowest point energetically.

Artist Betina Johnson

Artist Betina Johnson in her home studio, pictured Thursday, April 25.

“Even if I had the energy to go into the studio, at that point it would be too dark,” Johnson said. “I was in a place where my creativity would be a reminder of what I was going though. Because I am a positive person, to look back would have been hard on me, in my heart.”

Six months into her treatment, doctors changed Johnson's chemotherapy drugs and she began to feel better. She returned to the studio and has been actively painting and making “gifts of my heart” for friends and family who have supported her throughout her diagnosis.

Artist Betina Johnson

Artist Betina Johnson's home studio, pictured Thursday, April 25, 2019.

To help Johnson pay for the next wave of treatments, she’s decided to sell some the art she’s held on to. On May 18 she’ll host an open house and art sale at her residence, 2301 Bonnevue Square.

Johnson comes from an artful family. Later in life, her father began painting and taking art classes. "His art had become a huge part of his life.” 

Johnson recalled cleaning out her father’s closet, filled with artwork, after he passed away and doesn’t want that to be her story, as well. “I want it to be out in the world, if it can.”

With a diagnosis of cancer, Johnson said she had to evaluate what’s important. “You prioritize your life, and that could be part of my cleaning out the closet. You just look at things differently.”

Artist Betina Johnson

A piece by artist Betina Johnson in her home studio, pictured Thursday, April 25, 2019.

A late bloomer

Johnson was born in Townsend and grew up in Willow Creek, where she spent time on a ranch that her grandparents operated. The rural setting of Johnson’s youth gave her a lot of play time, and she would often sketch scenes around her as a child.

Yet, she didn’t continue as an artist until much later in life.

Artist Betina Johnson

A piece by artist Betina Johnson in her home studio, pictured Thursday, April 25, 2019.

At 63, Johnson has focused the past decade on her artwork, where her imaginative worlds continue to come to life. Most paintings feature playful, whimsical characters — the pigs, chickens, lambs, horses, cows and other animals that she grew up with.

“I connected so much with the animals,” Johnson said. “My grandparents were really good about that experience.” She’d feed chickens and gather eggs, and help nurse the bum lambs with warm milk in a bottle.

Johnson’s paintings are zoomed in, often looking directly into the eyes of the animal. There’s an intimacy in her art, a gentle kindness that exudes from the layers of paint and paper that she incorporates into multimedia pieces.

“I love that one-on-one connection with people. I don’t do well in groups, and I don’t even like to talk on the phone. I would rather meet you for coffee and talk face-to-face, than to feel that disconnect somehow.”

Artist Betina Johnson

Artist Betina Johnson in her home studio, pictured Thursday, April 25, 2019.

Once Johnson received a cancer diagnosis, that approach to life became nearly impossible, as many of her friends, art patrons, and others in her life wanted to know what was going on.

She started a private group on Facebook to keep people informed of her health.

“The support I’ve had in the last year has just been amazing,” Johnson said. By June of 2018, after doctors switched her treatment methods, Johnson was able to return to her studio. She wanted to thank her friends and family for their support and to give them “a small gift of my heart.” She began making 4x6-inch pieces and giving them away on Facebook.

Artist Betina Johnson

A piece by artist Betina Johnson in her home studio, pictured Thursday, April 25, 2019.

“There was a phenomenal response. It just has really been a gift to me as much as to my followers, because the response has been so positive.”

Johnson hasn’t formally studied art, but said she just kept at it. She shares her emotional world on the canvas, telling stories thorough the charismatic and expressive characters she paints.

“I love creating. It’s become therapy for me now, with my cancer journey.”

Reaching out

'Old Blue Eyes,' by Betina Johnson

"Old Blue Eyes," by Betina Johnson.

During those initial cancer treatments, Johnson said many people asked what they could do. She said she didn’t need meals, and she didn’t need help with housecleaning. But she did need support.

So Johnson instructed anyone offering to help her to make “tags of hope.” She took those tags and hung them on a large hoop covered with natural jute. The finished piece was given to the Billings Clinic’s cancer treatment center, where it now hangs on the fourth floor at the infusion center.

“It was incredible that people were reaching out. It was a part of me — the art part, but it was also the cancer part.”

Even in those darkest moments, Johnson found the power to create in a painful and uncertain future.

“With the cancer I have, I didn’t know. It’s aggressive. I could be gone now.”

Vision of Hope

"Vision of Hope," a collaborative art piece created by artist Betina Johnson and her daughter Jill and their friends, hangs in the Bob and Penni Nance Infusion Center at Billings Clinic on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

In early May, Johnson received good news. A scan showed no sign of cancer. Though she’s not in remission, or cured, it does show that her body has responded completely to the treatments.

“It’s wonderful to be at this point, but it’s not a guarantee,” Johnson said. “And is there even a guarantee?”

Though research is quickly evolving, there’s no cure, and the cancer will return. To help prolong her life, doctors have advised that she receive a stem cell transplant.

For Johnson, artwork has helped her remain true to herself. She doesn’t paint animals because that’s what is selling; she paints animals because it brings her joy.

“There is so much more inside you. You have to tap into that, and if you get caught up in what is selling, you are really sacrificing what your true creativity could be.”

In the corner of her studio, a large blank canvas awaits Johnson’s paintbrush. This painting won’t be for others, however, it will be just for her.

“Everything I make, I love. It just brings me joy. I want to make a piece for my home that’s front and center above the fireplace, and I can look at it every day.”

Johnson said she’s come to terms with the fact that she may never be cured of cancer, but the joyfulness that art brings her has been a powerful treatment.

“A lot of it is positivity. I think cancer loves the stress. It loves to take over when you’re down. If you can try to stay positive and hopeful, that helps all the way around.”

Photos: Artist Betina Johnson

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Arts and Entertainment Reporter

Arts & Entertainment Reporter at The Billings Gazette.

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