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The faithful art of healing

Artist David Hetland escapes to his home studio for an hour each morning. At his drawing board, he scrambles to finish the design for Concordia College's annual Christmas concert mural.

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Artist David Hetland escapes to his home studio for an hour each morning. At his drawing board, he scrambles to finish the design for Concordia College's annual Christmas concert mural.

This year's painted mural -- with the theme "The Lord is My Shepherd," taken from Psalm 23 -- will be simpler than many of the artist's previous concert backdrops. In many ways it may be more meaningful.

The beloved Bible passage is one Hetland and his wife, Mary, find particularly relevant after the past year.

Since last Christmas, both have been diagnosed and treated for cancer. During that time, Hetland lost his business, which was devoted to designing liturgical and commercial art.

He still receives treatment for a debilitating heart and lung disease.

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Yet the artist turns to the psalmist's words: "I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me."

"I am reassured it is going to be OK," Hetland says. "I have no doubts."

Hetland, who is in his mid-50s, has dedicated his life to creating sacred art. Although he has worked with a number of mediums, his signature pieces are jewel-toned stained glass and mosaics.

He is perhaps best known in Lutheran circles, but his art knows no ecumenical lines.

He created First United Methodist's stained-glass window facing 10th Street in Fargo. One of his designs is in the Vatican archives, an official gift from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to Pope John Paul II.

"His art speaks of the promise and hope of the Gospel," said the Rev. Lowell Almen, secretary of the ELCA, based in Chicago. He has known Hetland since the artist was a student at Concordia in the late 1960s. "I think that's part of what gives them lasting strength and impact."

But Hetland's most public work is temporary.

Each December, 20,000 concertgoers view a 56-foot by 20-foot mural from their seats at Concordia's Memorial Auditorium and at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. The dramatic mural, painted by more than 100 volunteers, serves as a backdrop to choirs, an orchestra and handbell ringers.

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In addition to translating biblical and musical texts into visual symbols, Hetland weaves touches of fun into each design.

One year, a quail sat under a bush, a nod to the 1988 presidential election. In 2002, the word peace was painted in 200 different languages.

"His personality is reflected in his art," says Paul Dovre, retired Concordia president. "There's both penetrating intelligence and his capacity for whimsy. He has both the eyesight and the insight to make it work."

At the end of each holiday season, the mural's muslin panels are recycled or destroyed.

In a December 2002 article published in The Lutheran, the ELCA's national magazine, Hetland said despite the mural's short-lived life, it is the most important work he does each year.

"So many people who come to the concerts have daily burdens that are difficult to imagine," he said then. "Yet they can come and leave spiritually refreshed."

Daily burdens hit home for Hetland last November. While painting the concert mural, he noticed a swelling in his neck.

Before Christmas, he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and lymph nodes. Doctors elected to forgo surgery and gave him a one in four chance of surviving five years.

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By mid-February, chemo-therapy and radiation treatments had zapped his energy. His weight fell from 205 pounds to 133. He lost the ability to taste, speak and eat.

He also lost the business he ran for 25 years.

This all came after he was diagnosed in 1997 with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a debilitating heart and lung disease with no cure. A computer-controlled pump keeps medication flowing through his veins 24 hours a day.

Because the disease leaves him fatigued, he hasn't worked full time in years. Cancer treatments delivered the final financial blow.

Hetland slowly began to recover by summer. Mary Hetland knew he was going to be fine the day he started sketching on the back of an envelope, says friend Vicki Schmidt.

"Art is his pathway back to health," Schmidt says. "When you're an artist, it's an expression of the soul. For a while, he needed to focus on the needs of his body and didn't have that."

Hetland underwent surgery in July to remove part of his thyroid, the last area that harbored cancer cells. Three weeks later, Mary was diagnosed with abdominal cancer.

"You always say it could never happen to us," Hetland says. "I still spend part of each day saying, 'I can't believe what we're going through.' "

Hetland now has been declared cancer-free. His hair and voice have returned. He still receives nourishment through a feeding tube but is starting to eat. He's gained 10 pounds.

Mary is recovering after having surgery to remove the tumor.

"We're taking as many prayers as we can get," Hetland says. "The cancer is under control, but it casts a shadow on the future."

Hetland is till trying to get a grip on what that future holds. What he does know is his faith has been tested and he still believes God is in control.

"I've never had a doubt about why I'm here and what I'm supposed to do," he says. "Now I want to do it better and, hopefully, longer."

This Friday, friends are hosting "Dave's Fresh Start" to help him do exactly that. It's a tribute and fund-raiser for the artist whose visual sermons have helped countless souls understand and express their own faith.

For Hetland, the gesture is overwhelming.

He is reminded of a stained-glass window he designed for Concordia College. The arched window shows a dove suspended above cupped hands. Whether the dove, a symbol for the Holy Spirit, is leaving or returning is unclear.

Today, he feels like the hands. The Holy Spirit is flowing down to him through his friends' efforts, he says.

"He is a wonderful friend to those he serves," says the Rev. Rick Foss, bishop of the ELCA's Eastern North Dakota Synod. "He tends to give more than he ever takes. We're just trying to give a little of that back."

Although Hetland's body had other ideas, there was never a doubt in his mind he would design this year's Christmas mural.

Nothing short of death would keep him from doing it, he says. He has enough energy to spend about an hour a day on the project, but thinks about it constantly.

Next week volunteers will begin painting this year's mural.

In his annual letter to them, Hetland wrote: "You can believe me when I tell you that I am eager to connect again and that I'm very much looking forward to working together on our little project."

Despite the trials of the past months, the Christmas mural will be completed and put in place in early December.

When the lights go down and a lonely chime signifies the start of the Christmas concert, everyone will see what Hetland has often said: His most meaningful work is best seen in the dark and from a distance.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

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