By Laura Beil
The Art of Healing
After fleeing Yugoslavia, oncologist Sasha Vukelja turned to art as she sculpted her new life
By Laura Beil
Sasha Vukelja was almost 22 when she and her mother arrived at New York City’s Kennedy Airport one morning before dawn, travel weary and knowing only snippets of non-useful English. She could say “cowboy” and “come in,” but did not know the word for help. And at the moment, that was exactly what she needed.
The latch had given way on one of the two suitcases holding all her belongings. Bursting from a cheap black satchel were clothes, toiletries and a stash of colorful artwork. She and her mother had fled Yugoslavia with what they could carry, and they could always carry their paintings.
She approached an imposing customs agent with a towering Afro—this was 1972—and pantomimed her request. He nodded, left and returned with a rope to secure her luggage.
My first encounter with an American, she thought, and he was startlingly helpful. She began to think that the United States might indeed be the land she was destined for. Yet it would be another two decades before she would find home: in Tyler, Texas, more than 5,000 miles from her birthplace in Slovenia, then a republic of Yugoslavia.
Now 55, with cropped blond hair and a youthful face that she jokingly attributes to her dermatologist husband, Vukelja moves through the corridors of the Tyler Cancer Center unleashing a series of rapid-fire directives. Visitors usually reach two unmistakable conclusions. One is that you will always know where she stands. On everything. The second is her belief that art—on walls, in corners, on shelves—is an instrument of healing. She even commissioned a bronze likeness of a survivor, jubilant and bald, to greet all who enter the building.
A community oncologist who focuses on breast cancer, Vukelja is known in Tyler almost as much for her achievements in art as in medicine. Though she is more sculptor than painter, a local museum once exhibited paintings by her, her mother and her daughter, Maxi, who was then 11. She is most proud, however, of the gallery she enters every day in the cancer center’s chemotherapy suite: the Chemo Gallery, which houses the works of her mother, patients and former patients. The art helps remind people that their lives are bigger than their cancer.
“You can look at a painting, and it can take you away without ever moving,” she says.
Art was a refuge Vukelja found during a long struggle for a better life. Her mother, Katarina Maksimovich, wanted her only child to avoid an oppressive regime—Vukelja’s father died under house arrest—but the escape from her homeland took the girl’s entire childhood. Along the way, the two withstood a refugee camp in Austria, deportation, imprisonment, hiding, and long hours of work with little food. An economist by training, her mother coped through painting, be it on scraps of leather, cookie tins or discarded Plexiglas. When they had little else, Vukelja’s mother created beauty.
While hiding in a Slovenian convent, a young Vukelja was shown films about Christianity. There, on grainy reel-to-reels, she learned of leprosy. One day, she resolved, she would become a doctor and help those people.