The skydiving trip that inspired this Brushes with Cancer piece

When Brushes with Cancer participants Kim Builta and Mali Schwartz were paired for the 2024 Midwest open program, they found what they needed in one another. Both touched by cancer, Kim connected with an artist who got it and Mali could open up with her own story.

For Kim specifically, she needed someone who truly understood cancer’s realities and how looking for silver linings is more challenging than it seems.

Brushes with Cancer Inspiration, Kim Builta

“I’ve been on some sort of medication or treatment since 2010,” Kim said. “People ask me when I’m going to be done—if I’m done, the medication is not working.”

Luckily, Mali was ready to get real with Kim.

Mali understands how easily and frequently those negative emotions can pop up. 

“When you have a war with your own body, to me, it is very detrimental,” she said.

Most importantly, Mali knows what life in “the middle” is like. 

“I don’t hear much about women in cancer conversations,” Mali said. “Either they have breast cancer and they get a good report or pass away. Kim is in the middle, which is a bittersweet place to live. She has to take medication all the time and has damage due to treatment.”

Kim was first diagnosed with breast cancer 21 years ago, followed by a stage four metastatic diagnosis in 2010. 

“It’s not the path I’ve chosen but it’s the path I’ve been put on,” Kim said. “And all I can do is my best to continue down this path.”

Mali also has a breast cancer experience. Diagnosed in 2017, she specifically understands that treatment does not equate to getting better. 

“I had such anger about chemo. I’d like to see chemo eradicated in my lifetime,” Mali said. “It has derivatives of things that can kill you, so doctors are telling you point blank that either you live or you die.”


Breast cancer made me a true artist 


Brushes with Cancer Artist, Mali Schwartz

While chemotherapy’s derivatives sparked anger in Mali, the process also sparked inspiration.

“During my cancer protocol, I came up with certain ideas that I wanted to paint,” she said. “I was too weak and sick to do them then but after I finished treatment, I did ‘My Cancer Journey’ series.”

Mali’s first painting is called “Bitter Pill” and visually represents her chemotherapy experience.

“After chemo started working, the taste in my mouth was so acrid and chemical that I just felt like spitting,” she said. 

Mali titled the second painting in the series “The Dream” because of a dream that led to her cancer detection. In 2017, Mali’s daughter visited with her infant daughter. During a nap, Mali heard her grandchild’s cries in a dream and, in the dream, she had the urge to nurse the baby. She woke up, rubbing her left breast, believing it was filled with milk. That’s when she discovered her tumor.

“I put two images together, one of a woman giving birth in a hospital and nursing a baby, and on the other side, a frail woman undergoing radiation treatment,” Mali said. “The woman in the radiation machine has electrical currents going toward the nursing mother—to me, it is a cry for help.”

Her final piece in the series is titled A Healing and represents the zest for life she now has after going through grueling treatments. 

“I felt a level of gratitude as if a heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders,” Mali said in her artist statement.

A hobbyist, Mali doesn’t consider herself a professional artist. She is, however, building quite the artist’s resume for a self-defined hobbyist. In October 2021, she curated a show at her local Jewish Community Center. Featuring 12 artists, the center exhibited the pieces for three months. 

“Not every piece is related to cancer but the artist application specified that they were either a survivor or knew people touched by cancer.”

With the COVID pandemic still a significant threat during that time, Mali held a virtual opening night and gave space for the participants, all women, to speak about their work. 

“Breast cancer made me a true artist because, before this, I didn’t do narrative painting,” Mali said. “This was the first time I wanted to share my art with the public because, for me, it wasn’t only expressing what I felt—I needed other women to see my paintings so they could think about healing.”


Skydiving with a guardian angel


Kim’s experience with cancer extends past her own diagnosis. Her father and father-in-law both died from cancer and six years after she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, in 2016, her husband passed away from renal cancer. 

“I’ve become just a little bit of an expert,” Kim said. “Every cancer is different and that’s what I try to tell all my friends.” 

Kim balances those monumental losses by focusing on what gives her joy: her children, her faith and her friends. She also finds daily inspiration in her husband’s words. 

“My husband wrote a letter to me and each of my daughters,” she said. “One of the last things he said in the letter was to try to find a reason to smile every day. Some days, it’s harder than others, but that’s why you bottle it up for the days you can’t. So, I try to find something every day that will make me smile.”

To honor his words, Kim picks an activity to do around their anniversary. One year, she took a flying lesson and another year, she went skydiving. Many people were particularly curious about the skydiving trip and asked if it was something her husband would do.

“I was like ‘No, it would have terrified him,’” Kim said. “I try to use it as something to push me out of my comfort zone and try new things.”

By exiting her comfort zone, Kim ended up with one of the best experiences of her life. 

“The chute pulls and opens and it is the most peaceful blissful feeling you have ever experienced in your entire life,” Kim said. “You can let go of all of your problems because you’re looking at them with the perspective ‘That is so small.’”

 It’s a feeling she recommends to anyone, no matter how fearful they are.

“It’s a feeling you can’t describe but it’s a feeling I will never forget.” 

The experience was so impactful that it inspired Mali’s Brushes with Cancer piece. Before she began painting, though, it was important for Mali to get Kim’s approval. 

“I wanted Kim’s approval because I didn’t know what her reaction might be since her husband had passed away,” Mali said. “I loved the idea of her flying up in the air because she’s gone through so much in her life that I like to think of her being free up there.”

In the painting, Mali focuses on both Kim’s perspective-changing jump and the people who helped her fly. 

“Instead of having the instructor help her fly down, I have Kim and her husband,” Mali said. “She loved the idea.” 

Mali was also mindful of how she presented Kim’s body language. Instead of sticking to realism, Mali positioned Kim in a triumphant pose.

“I have Kim up in the air with arms spread out and her friends in the back cheering her on.”

In fact, one of those cheerleaders who waited for Kim on the ground will be at Brushes with Cancer on April 6. 

“It will be fun to see her reaction to the painting Mali is doing,” Kim said. 

Kim is also looking forward to meeting more people who understand life with cancer the way she and Mali do. 

“It’s not one of those cliques you want to join but when you do, you find out there are some incredible people you wouldn’t have met otherwise.”