Claudia Sanchez was diagnosed with breast cancer more than a decade ago, but it could have been yesterday. The memory is still indelible; she heard the news she had Grade 1 invasive ductal cell carcinoma on her 20th wedding anniversary, in 2005.
“I was in disbelief,” said Sanchez, who was 52 at the time. A Santa Rosa artist and mother of two grown children, Sanchez put up a tough battle against the disease, but found comfort in a pair of gentle creatures — her two pedigree cats, Simba and Sabrina.
When she was feeling weak and ill from radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she had her constant companions sharing their affections and helping her through the toughest days, “as if they knew” something wasn’t quite right.
“These two cats saw me through it,” said Sanchez, now 64. “They would lie there with me on the sofa. We call it ‘kitty therapy.’ ”
The cats, and others she’d later adopt, not only provided unconditional love, they inspired her artwork and led Sanchez to establish Cats for a Cure, a collection of cat art products that raise funds for breast cancer research and services.
A self-taught digital and multimedia artist, Sanchez started out painting abstracts but added cats to her pursuits after a gift shop and gallery owner suggested she “do something else” to broaden her appeal. Sanchez showed the owner her lone cat painting — a work completed for her cat-loving mother for Mother’s Day — and a new path emerged.
“From that moment, I never turned back,” she said. Today her works almost exclusively feature cats, but not just tuxedo kitties in black and white or gray-toned tabbies. Her cats are painted in brilliant rainbow hues — purple, pink, green, yellow, orange and blue — vibrant and eye-catching.
Sanchez calls her style “abstract realism.” It’s something she developed in mid-life, after switching from a business career, holding jobs including bookkeeping and data entry, and serving as an office manager for Caltrans.
She left that profession in her early 30s to pursue a certificate in interior design from Santa Rosa Junior College. She particularly enjoyed courses in color principles, and today is known for her creative use of color.
“I try to keep the cats realistic in terms of markings and eyes, and then play with the color,” she said. “Color is my No. 1 thing, and my cats have golden whiskers.”
Her works are cheerful, with cats in varied poses and settings. Although she favors Wine Country and Hawaiian themes, (felines in vineyards and peering into wine glasses and kitties surfing, scuba diving and wearing hula skirts and sunglasses), Sanchez poses cats in iconic settings in San Francisco Victorians and cable cars and at the Golden Gate Bridge.
An ornament illustrated and designed by artist Claudia Sanchez at her home in Santa Rosa on Monday, October 8, 2018. (Beth Schlanker/ The Press Democrat)
Other works are closeups of cat faces — with those signature golden whiskers — while some highlight cats cozying up in coffee mugs or hammocks or perched on piano keys.
Most of Sanchez’s paintings focus on a single cat, but one piece features 22 cats in and atop a cable car. She loves painting cityscapes, finding new ways to place cats within architectural settings.
With each work, she tries to establish an emotional connection between cats and viewers.
Despite the pose or setting, “To me it’s (the cats’) eyes and the color,” she said. “What gets me through is the fact people love my art.”
Sanchez doesn’t discriminate against other animals. She’s painted dogs, cows, a bobcat and bunnies, also a dragonfly, and in her “House of All Creatures” poster, there’s a bird and a kangaroo, too.
She considers her work rewarding and therapeutic. “I feel successful. I feel in my own way I’ve done a lot,” she said. Her work has been featured in shops, galleries, art shows, exhibitions and private collections for more than 20 years.
She’s had to modify her approach since her battle with breast cancer.
She’s “less prolific” and has reduced the number of cat, wine and art shows she attends to sell her work.
Although Sanchez initially painted in watercolors and acrylics on paper and canvas, her carpal tunnel symptoms in both hands increased after taking cancer-fighting drugs. She now paints digitally in Photoshop on her computer, hand-embellishing her originals with colored ink and occasionally adding crystals, wires or fabric bits.
Her works are sold in prints and posters; as wearable art on T-shirts, tote bags and jewelry; on metal and hardboard prints; on luggage tags, holiday ornaments, magnets, mugs, compact mirrors and coasters; plush cats wearing Sanchez art T-shirts; and as etched Plexiglas cats.
She has licensing agreements for her cats on ceramic tiles, wooden figurines and T-shirts. Sanchez has incorporated her artwork to make political statements, like her “Resist-Purrsist” line.
Although she grew up with cats, Sanchez isn’t a lifelong “cat person.” She gained an appreciation — devotion, even — later in life.
She deeply mourned the loss of both Simba and Sabrina, so constant during her eight months of treatments and recovery, and had since adopted two other cats, Keira and Ali. Within the past year, both died unexpectedly; Keira from a feline cancer and Ali from a rare disease called chylothorax. Additionally, Lucy, the kitten she adopted when Simba was still alive, was just 6 months old when she died from an aggressive virus.
Motivated by research efforts and treatments underway at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and its Center for Companion Animal Health, Sanchez also donates a portion of funds from her Cats for the Cure to help these causes.
Each year since 2006, she’s created a special painting with a cat wearing the pink breast cancer awareness ribbon (or bow tie); in 2007 she established her Cats for the Cure charity, donating proceeds ever since. It’s a humble effort, Sanchez said, but to date she’s donated about $10,000 to aid the fight against breast cancer and the efforts to save cats from deadly diseases.
Sanchez turned a fashion modeling experience into ongoing philanthropy. After her cancer treatments, she modeled in Catwalk for a Cure, a fashion show and auction benefiting Sutter’s Cancer Screening and Support Services.
She donated artwork to the annual event, the start of her own fundraising.
When Sanchez discovered her passion for art, she hoped her talents would make people smile — her brightly colored cats (sometimes aloof, often humorous) hinting at their personalities and showcasing their antics.
Now, her artwork makes a difference for others.
She knows too many people who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her younger sister, Michelle, was diagnosed with the same type of cancer at the same age Sanchez was at her diagnosis; both now celebrate being longtime survivors.
Sanchez lost her friend and business assistant, Suzie Geraldi, to breast cancer in 2011, after a 26-month battle against the disease. Geraldi’s cat, Purrsie, was Sanchez’s first Cats for the Cure model, and is featured on several items in the charitable collection.
Almost all of Sanchez’s artwork is inspired by real animals. She typically works from photographs of cats — her own and those of friends and acquaintances — capturing their unique features and personalities.
From the routine mammogram that discovered a questionable image, to the lumpectomy, chemotherapy and radiation, to the 2009 prophylactic bilateral mastectomy (an 11-hour surgery), and following complications and surgeries, Sanchez said breast cancer is a demon to endure. Still today, she suffers from pain caused by scar tissue.
“Everything about it was horrible,” she said. “I persevere through the tough times, then it hits me afterward.” The experience awakened her to the option of saying “no” to things she doesn’t want to do. “It’s made me not want to rush through life.”
Her circle of family and friends, breast cancer support group and dedicated doctors provided comfort and care — along with those treasured cats that readily cuddled up with Sanchez when she was feeling her worst.
Her artwork has provided solace ever since her diagnosis. It helps, she said, to have a hobby or an interest “whether it’s reading or drawing or flower arranging” as women and men recover from breast cancer.
“Try to do something creative, even if you’re not the best at it. It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It takes your head into a different world.”
For Sanchez, it’s one of playful, prancing cats, bright hues and blissful scenes. “This is how I want to feel all the time,” she said. “It’s what keeps me going.”
Towns correspondent Dianne Reber Hart can be reached at email@example.com.