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Published January 15, 2011, 12:00 AM

Fargo woman uses art as way to discuss her cancer fight

For many people, turning 50 is a significant milestone marked with a party. For Claudia Pratt reaching age 50 is more of a goal, so she’s not waiting another 13 months to start living live to the fullest.

By: John Lamb, INFORUM

If you go

  • What: “Exploring Now: 365 Days to 50”

  • When: 3 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, noon to 9 p.m. Saturdays, now through April 30

  • Where: Green Market Kitchen, 69 4th St. N., Fargo.

  • Info: (701) 241-6000

  • Online: Follow Claudia Pratt’s progress at her blog, www.CMP365daysto50.wordpress.com.

For many people, turning 50 is a significant milestone marked with a party.

For Claudia Pratt reaching age 50 is more of a goal, so she’s not waiting another 13 months to start living live to the fullest.

Last summer, after persistent coughing bothered the 48-year-old artist from rural Fargo, her doctors discovered the breast cancer she’d beaten back in 2006 and again in ’09 had returned and had spread to her lungs. Pratt was told the cancer was stage 4 and incurable.

“When you have a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis, you start thinking of what you want to do and what your priorities are, which people should do every day,” Pratt says, sipping tea one afternoon earlier this week at the Green Market Kitchen in downtown Fargo.

Her priority switched to making art full time, in particular an interactive, ongoing exhibit in the Green Market dining room.

Pratt’s show is already evolving, though it technically starts on her birthday, Feb. 28, and follows her daily steps leading up to her 50th birthday next year. There will be an opening reception on Feb. 28 at the Green Market.

The show, “Exploring Now: 365 Days to 50,” is already progressing at the Green Market. Large sections of walls have been coated in black chalkboard paint, on which Pratt has written variations on the theme of time and how to make the most of it. The words “now,” “moment” and “time” are repeated around the dining room. One corner wall has the word “calendar” scripted out with relating terms around it. On another wall hangs a clock.

In chalk, Pratt prompts patrons to leave her “moment” messages, suggestions on what she should do in her 50th year and how they live in the now. Post-it notepads and pens are positioned on each table.

When the show starts in earnest on the 28th, she will post a photo each day. Some will be self-portraits. Some will be things she sees that move her. Others may be whimsical, like a photo of the color black if she’s feeling crummy.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen those 365 days,” she says, taking a break from writing on the walls. “But it will definitely be my reaction to life.”

“I want to let the project play out in front of everybody. The Green Market has become my studio, at least through April.”

When Pratt’s show ends on April 30, one wall by the restaurant’s main entrance will still remain dedicated to documenting Pratt’s 50th year.

The entire display will be resurrected closer to her 50th birthday, and the party will be a fundraiser for the Art Heals Fund to support projects using art therapy. The party is already booked for Feb. 25, 2012, at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.

“I never had a wedding, so I’m going to have the Jazz Arts band play because I’ve always wanted to have a dance,” Pratt explains.

Not the first time

Pratt was first diagnosed with another form of cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, when she was 19.

“In 1981, ‘cancer’ was this really dirty word,” she says. “I read the encyclopedia and I wasn’t going to live long. My parents didn’t want to talk about it. The community didn’t want to talk about it. My friends didn’t want to talk about it.”

Twenty-five years later, in 2006, she was diagnosed with breast cancer for the first time and saw a big difference in how open people could be discussing their illness.

“This is what I discovered in 1981: If I kept it inside, it was like poison,” she says.

Instead of keeping down the poison, Pratt turned the experience into something positive.

When she lost her hair during 2006’s cancer fight, she started the sheARTS Project, in which local artisans crafted stylish hats for those facing chemo-induced hair loss.

The “Exploring Now” show is another way for her to open up about her experiences and a method for others to communicate publicly.

“There’s a real dialogue that’s starting to happen, which I hoped for,” Pratt says, looking at the posted messages. “How do you live in the moment? It’s a dialogue between the public and me and what I do and what they do.”

Some of the posted suggestions are light-hearted. “3 words: slippers, jammies, book.” Others are more profound: “Live life to the best of your ability each day.”

Debra Dawson, a regular at the Green Market, looks forward to the show unfolding.

“To see it as it changes and develops is really interesting,” she says, adding that she hasn’t yet left a message, but will.

“It’s good to have art interactive,” Dawson says. “It brings the audience in.”

“The interaction with the public is a big part of it, so it has to be ongoing,” says Peter Kelly, co-owner of the Green Market. He worked with Pratt, suggesting a show that develops rather than a static display.

“As more unfolds, a sense of urgency will come more into play,” he says.

Positive outlook

While the prognosis for Pratt’s current bout of cancer isn’t good, she still feels fortunate for the other things in her life.

“I’ve treated it as a gift. Not every one can do the things I can do. I can walk. I can talk,” she says, talking about seeing people at Roger Maris Cancer Center who have it much worse than her. “I think of my situation as pretty mild compared to others. But mine will be ending sooner rather than later.

“Positive attitude is a huge component to a better quality of life. I refuse to let it get me down. I have my icky days. Who doesn’t?”

She also has her good days. The show has given the artist an invaluable lift, says her father, Paul.

“It’s revitalized Claudia,” he says, sitting in the Green Market. “She’s got a purpose, a mission to have a party, get to 50. It’s a mission to tell her story and motivate others who don’t know what to do or how to do it.”

Readers can reach Forum columnist John Lamb at (701) 241-5533