Philippine arts

Cancer survivor with disability finds hope through art

Vanessa Feje

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Cancer survivor with disability finds hope through art

Cebu-based artist Christian Rey Villanueva showcased a selection of his artworks during ‘Vessels of Time,’ an exhibit at the Qube Gallery in Cebu City in August 2022.

After surviving cancer, Christian Ray Villanueva organized art classes with a small group of friends. It eventually grew into a community for art enthusiasts in Cebu.

At the age of 13, Christian Ray Villanueva was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that is common among young adolescents. 

In an interview with Rappler, he shared that, as a kid, he never really thought about what life would be like with cancer until he went into chemotherapy. He lost all his hair, felt nauseous even without eating food, and dealt with mental anxiety and stress.

But what hit him the hardest was when the doctor told him he needed to get his leg amputated. He struggled with the mental and physical anguish of having to live with a disability. “I cried. I wept. The pain was unbearable,” Villanueva shared.

Villanueva shared snaps of his cancer journey, particularly after his chemotherapy sessions. Photos courtesy of Christian Ray Villanueva

Villanueva stopped going to school, but his persistence to learn led him to thrive and pass the Alternative Learning System in one take.

When asked how he managed to come back stronger after all those chemotherapy sessions, medicines, and living in the hospital, his answer was art. He had learned the guitar and made some music while in recovery, and he felt that this soothed the pain he was going through.

Things got even better when he picked up a pencil and a brush.

“My world became magnified,” Villanueva shared.

(L-R) Atonement (2022), Waiting for you (2022), Suffering is good (2019), The Crutch, The Vase and Frida’s Monkey’s (2019). Photos courtesy of Christian Ray Villanueva

Villanueva’s artworks depict his journey with cancer, living with a disability, and his sexuality.

“It’s an autobiography,” he said. “My work is a recollection of the painful experiences in my life and my childhood.”

Villanueva showcased some of his artworks at ‘Vessels of Time,’ an exhibit at the Qube Gallery in Cebu City in August 2022. Photo courtesy of Christian Ray Villanueva
Building a foundation

Villanueva ended up taking up Fine Arts at the University of the Philippines Cebu. But his love for art did not stop with his own paintings.

In October 2022, together with five of his friends, he created the Drawing Class Foundation, which aimed to foster inclusivity within the Cebu art community. What started with just 12 students has now grown to almost 40 regular attendees who come to classes once a month. 

The foundation gathers artists who wish to discover their own style and self-expression. It has also reached marginalized groups, including queer folk, disabled individuals, women, and anyone who felt they didn’t fit into the traditional art scene. Attendees have said that the foundation has rekindled their love for art and helped them find a sense of belonging in the community.

Some attendees told Villanueva that Drawing Class rekindled their love for art. Some said it helped ignite a sense of belonging within a community.

“We started doing the class originally as just a small thing for friends,” Villanueva said. But as time went on, the foundation had become more of a place to create organic friendships with the attendees. Villanueva considers this their real achievement.

Thanks to the support they have received in donations and collaborations, the Drawing Class Foundation has been able to host small events and gatherings.

One of the sessions of Drawing Class, where a group of artists come together to learn and create. Photos courtesy of Christian Ray Villanueva

The foundation is committed to fostering inclusivity within the local art community, Villanueva said. “We are more inclusive than ever…. The future of Drawing Class is for artists who feel like they don’t belong or they don’t fit in because the art scene in general is so male-dominated.” 

For now, their main priority is to continue welcoming as many students as possible and providing a space for people to come together and create meaningful connections through art.

As an advocate of mental wellness, he advised: “Get the right help. I’m a big mental health advocate, and psychotherapy helped me so much these past four years. Surround yourself with good people, and most importantly, do what you love.” —

Vanessa Feje is a Digital Communications intern for Rappler.

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