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Cathartic Brush Strokes

After losing 50 pounds in four months, José Abel Santiago’s doctor suggested running some tests. A painful bone marrow biopsy and blood work revealed that he was unknowingly battling chronic myeloid leukemia.

“I was freaking out. I started crying. A hundred different things were going through my head. I thought, ‘Oh, wow, I have cancer, I’m going to die before I graduate from college.’ That was the emotion that I had,” he said.

Santiago ’24 was in his final semester at Mohawk Community College where he was wrapping up his degree in fine arts when he got the news. Despite the prognosis, he continued to work on his degree in fine arts. “I was coughing and shouldn’t have been smelling the fumes of oil paint when I was doing chemo, but that was my own little escape. That time was a whirlwind, but I needed art to help me get out of my own little funk,” he said. 

Simultaneously focusing on his studies and undergoing chemotherapy, Santiago dealt with one hurdle after the next. “The first six months of treatment were the worst six months of my life. I found out I had cancer, a month later my spleen ruptured because of all the overuse of the white blood cells and the chemo and the radiation. A month later I got Covid, and then two weeks after I recovered from Covid, my grandfather died. A lot happened, but my family rallied around me during that time,” he said.

When his spleen ruptured in the middle of his chemotherapy treatment, he was rushed to the hospital and then transferred to the University of Rochester Medical Center. “During that time, I started losing my hair. I cried a lot. I was in the shower and clumps would come out. I was in a little bit of denial, but having my head shaved in the hospital was my true acceptance of having cancer,” he said. 

Things slowly started to get better. After being discharged from the hospital he went back to his childhood home in Rome, N.Y., where he continued his chemotherapy and received unwavering support from his loving parents, José and Elizabeth Santiago, and in an act of solidary his father and two older brothers shaved their heads to symbolize their unified strength. As his health returned, Santiago looked for options to build on his associate's degree in fine art, by pursuing a bachelor’s degree at a four-year SUNY school.

After looking at a few different schools, his path led him to SUNY Potsdam. He visited campus and felt an immediate connection with the College.

 “When I came to SUNY Potsdam for a tour, I just felt happy. I was like ‘Oh, I could really see myself here.’ I loved it here. I felt like I was home in a sense. Coming to Potsdam was a breath of fresh air."

José Abel Santiago '24

In addition to battling cancer, Santiago has dealt with other challenges throughout his life. Born two and a half months prematurely, he is deaf in one ear and half-blind in one eye, disabilities that put him at a disadvantage in academic settings throughout his youth. So, finding a college that offered excellent accommodative services was imperative for him. “The financial aid package was really nice. I talked to Terry Francis [the director of admissions], and Jessica Burnett in accommodative services, and that really solidified it for me,” he said.

Santiago enrolled at SUNY Potsdam in the Fall of 2021 to pursue a BFA in visual arts and a BA in art history with a minor in museum studies. Although he was still battling cancer when he arrived, he continued to progress in the right direction. Over the next three years, he created artwork that reflected on his experiences, painting scenes that provided a window into his battle with cancer. He produced six paintings for the 2024 BFA Exhibition, a cathartic process that allowed him to explore all aspects of the physical and mental challenges of living with leukemia.

For one piece, “Knitted Skies,” he combined gray and blue colors while using a palate knifing technique to create textured white caps depicting an angry ocean. He also painted the clouds in a latticework pattern, reminding him of hats his mother made for him and other cancer patients when he was in the hospital. “I wanted the piece to represent myself floating in the ocean and feeling weightlessness and nothingness, and darker clouds in the distance looming over me. I painted my own emotions and imagination onto the piece. It’s a giant ocean, waves rushing down,” he said.

"Knitted Skies" by José Abel Santiago

"Bruising Ocean" by José Abel Santiago

"Blood Blonds" by José Abel Santiago

"Fjord" by José Abel Santiago

"First Month" by José Abel Santiago

"A 5pm Saturday" by José Abel Santiago

For another piece, he painted a large circle with a limited color palate. “It was focused on yellows and purples, very nice complementary colors, which represented my bruises that I would get all the time from getting blood drawn and treatments when I was in the hospital,” he said. 

On April 22, 2024, as Santiago was wrapping up his final semester, he was told that his leukemia was in complete remission. “That was the best news I ever heard. I was already on cloud nine because of the art show, but I started crying after hearing the news that I was in complete remission since I was closing my cancer journey,” he said.

In May 2024, Santiago walked across the Commencement stage with a fresh new outlook on life. His parents attended the ceremony to witness their son, a first-generation college student, graduate Magna Cum Laude with a dual degree in visual arts and art history. With a tremendous weight lifted off his shoulders, he’s embracing the excitement of things to come. “I know I want to either work in a museum or be a full-time artist, but I’m taking a year off before I attend graduate school,” he said. “I have this idea that I’m living my best life in Ireland as a full-time artist or an art historian.”

Article by Jason Hunter. Photos by Ayisha Khalid ’24