Sandra (Cho) Curitore, a Korean American Artist/Art director, breast cancer survivor, Wife, and Mother living in Los Angeles, is an alumna of Otis College of Art and Design. She majored in Communication Arts - Graphic Design and continued a professional career of 20+ years within the beauty industry, reaching the level of Creative Director.

In 2022, her role as CD came to an end. The layoff was a surprise, but it didn’t consume her because a year prior to Covid, she battled stage 3 breast cancer and survived. With her new perspective on life, she chose to pivot and dedicate most of her time to acrylic painting and collaborating with other artists. She’s inspired by her family, nature’s beauty, anything colorful, and applying the design skills from her previous professional life to her next chapter in fine art.

Artist Statement

This 10”x10” acrylic series, "When Life Gives You Lemons," represents my breast cancer journey and ongoing survivorship. While going through treatment, I remained positive and focused on getting to the finish line of beating cancer. Having my husband, Tom, and son, Owen, by my side supporting me throughout gave me more willpower and fight. Painting this lemon series gave me the opportunity to heal, reflect, and process what I physically and emotionally experienced. I hope these paintings can encourage and show that healing can happen in any form or medium. I’m so grateful for life.

Could you share your journey from being a Creative Director in the beauty industry to becoming a full-time artist, especially considering your battle with breast cancer and the layoff in 2022?

My journey from Creative Director in the Beauty Industry to full-time artist begins at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles, where I received a BFA in Communication Arts/Graphic Design. I then embarked on a professional career spanning 20+ years, lending my talents to established brands as well as small start-ups, through branding, packaging, social, digital, and photo/video art direction, finding creative solutions to fit any budget.

In December 2018, at the height of my career, I received the news I had stage 3 breast cancer. The diagnosis: invasive lobular carcinoma with lymph node involvement; ER/PR positive, HER2 negative; and through genetic testing, found I carried the BRCA2 mutation... With that, life gave me a Big Ol' Lemon!!! But much like an eleventh-hour rush project that needs to go out ASAP, I knew this was just something I needed to plow through.

It wasn't until I asked my husband, Tom, to shave my head, and my son, Owen (6 at the time), to document it, that I allowed myself to get emotional. "Am I really going through this?!?!”, I cried… But it was also a strangely empowering moment (they both shaved their heads too) because from the start, I knew I had the support of my family, and that Cancer wasn’t gonna dictate things like when I lose my hair!

I’d continue working throughout my entire treatment, jumping on planes to do Trade shows (days out from Chemo), planning photoshoots with influencers (who’d compliment me on my cut & color, not realizing I was sweating my butt off underneath a wig), and for the most part, it was business as “usual”… Aside from the occasional sick days, drainage tubes, early onset menopause... But I got through it, and I’m happy to say this year I will be 5 years cancer-free!

Fast forward, Covid hits… The economy is a mess, and I wound up being laid off from my Creative Director job. It caught me by surprise but wasn’t nearly as bad as receiving the news of my cancer diagnosis, so I felt oddly prepared, and still had hope. With a newfound perspective on life, I decided to pivot and use the opportunity to dive into what really matters to ME. I switched focus from working a 9-5 job, to what brings me joy, which was creating art, and living life.

How has your experience as a breast cancer survivor influenced your artwork, particularly your series "When Life Gives You Lemons”?

Part of my survivorship has been processing it all, which I didn’t allow myself to do during treatment. I had kept myself so immersed in work (since that felt “normal”) and focused on the game plan the oncology team mapped out, that my only goal was to fight through treatments & surgeries with as smooth a recovery as possible. With all the appointments and decoding medical lingo, I had no bandwidth for dealing with feelings or fear of the unknown…

The silver lining to my layoff was that I now had more time for LIFE (the thing I fought so hard to maintain). It was the simple things, like walking our dog, that gave me time to reflect and start to process. Literally one day on our routine 10 am walk, the idea of painting lemons came to mind, along with the proverbial phrase “When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade”, which pretty much nails my outlook on life (even through cancer). I never would have envisioned myself HERE, sharing my story in this format.

When Life Gives You Lemons is me processing my breast cancer journey. It’s a visual journal of my experiences and recollections of what I felt during treatment, and how I navigate through survivorship today. Each piece is painted in acrylics on a 10”x10” canvas and represents a specific event, thought, or feeling along the way. Painting has always been a part of my life but took a backseat to my career… Now I not only had time, but I had my subject matter. The series is open-ended as I continue to survive, thrive, and heal through my art… I also may have developed a slight obsession with anything lemon! Flavor, fruit shape, and the color yellow in general... I’ve peeled, cut, and photographed sooo many lemons, and in every way possible... My 44th and 45th birthday cakes have been lemon cake with lemon curd filling (no scurvy in this house).

What inspires your art, and how do you incorporate your experiences into your work?

My inspirations come from everyday life interactions, my family, the beauty of nature, and my community.

After fighting breast cancer, my priorities shifted. I spend more time with my family and friends, work on projects that matter and bring me joy. I’m living more in the moment and taking time to observe things that strike me with awe. Paying attention to the details, engaging in the experience, so I can process and understand what I’m feeling or looking at.

I’m not an avid reader, but currently, I’m hooked on The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin. I’ve filled it with tons of post-its already making sure to highlight the sections that speak to me and quotes that hit home. I realize that some of the simplest tips and reminders are so easily forgotten because we’re so caught up in our daily routines.

“There is never a shortage of awe and inspiration to be found outdoors. If we dedicated our lives solely to noticing changes in natural light and shadow as the hours pass, we would constantly discover something new.” - Rick Ruben

As an alumna of Otis College of Art and Design, how do you feel your education has influenced your style and approach?

My foundation (freshman) year was tough, but one of my favorites (wouldn’t have said that back, ha!). Otis is filled with talented humans, so competition is high, and the imposter syndrome is real… Now, many years later, I see how essential experimentation with all forms of art was in choosing my major. There were many late nights, sketching an idea, and then trashing it. Putting in multiple rounds of edits because I felt the project fell short. But all these trials & errors taught me how to “make it work”!

I’ll never forget a conversation with my instructor/mentor, Jen Egger about my progress for the year. I shared with her some of my fears and anxieties about my abilities to create. Her encouraging words and empathy were genuine. Her experience in life and work gave me a different outlook on what being a creative entailed. She gave me hope and the confidence to get through the bumps in the road. I still think of this moment because the imposter feeling still happens today, but I remind myself to be resilient and to be open to different perspectives.

Can you describe your creative process when working on a new piece?

My profession as a graphic designer instilled the practice (and importance) of process. Whenever I begin a new piece I start with a loose creative brief, so I’m equipped with all the info I need: who, what, when, and how. Who’s this for? What’s my main goal? When’s the deadline? How do I want to execute it? Answering these questions early on allows me to focus on the concept and execution.

Once I have my answers, I start researching, pulling swipes, and begin creating mood boards. I’m a fan of both digital and physical mood boards, but digital gives me more flexibility to explore. I sometimes find myself going on tangents while pinning on Pinterest, but surprisingly these moments often become the solution (shall I say happy accident?!?) I do still enjoy something tangible (keep print alive!), and often find “must-print” swipes that I’ll tape to the wall near my desk, for clear inspiration without opening my computer.

The start of my creative process often begins the same, but the steps leading to the final piece are never identical. When executing a new painting, I tend to lean into my design background, first doing photo exploration of my subject, and then using the computer to figure out my composition. This process gives me the confidence that the concept is viable and will fit the canvas correctly. Then, once I translate the drawing to the canvas, I begin to paint.

How do you find collaboration with other artists enriches your artistic practice, and what qualities do you look for in potential collaborators?

My most recent collaborations with other artists have been a part of my healing process. I had the opportunity to work with Photographer, Erica Robinson (@ericarobinsonphoto), Literary Editor, Alexa Johansen (@goldscriptco), and Poet, Ashley Kendall Jones (@ashleykendalljones). We’ve all been affected by cancer, so collaborating on these projects was very special and empowering. I could relate and empathize with each artist, and I loved that our combined efforts could be used as inspiration to other patients, survivors, caregivers, and honestly ourselves. They were tangible experiences we could share with our family, friends, and community.

The key things I look for in potential partnerships are subject matter, a team player attitude, honesty, and openness. I want to work with others that aren’t afraid of sharing ideas and can work through problems that arise. I believe we all have our strengths and when we come together the end piece speaks for itself. That’s the best gratification. Are we content with what we produced? Did we achieve our goal?

Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations as an artist, and how do you hope to continue evolving in practice?

This August 30th, I’ll be celebrating my 5th year of being cancer-free (a big milestone). I’m still very much focused on continuing my Breast Cancer story, and embracing life, through my Lemon Series. I hope to challenge and continue to give myself grace, both in art and life. My body will continue to be my focus and I hope my time and dedication to the series will remind me how resilient my physical vessel really was/is.

Soon, I hope to get back into creative courses to learn and explore again. I’d like to collaborate with other artists to broaden my sense of community… When I was in college, I didn’t fully take advantage of all that was offered, but now I just crave learning and revisiting techniques and color theories. All this with the end game being an exhibit of my work, and my story, in a solo show.

As for aspirations, I’d be happy if one day all I had to do was eat, drink, travel, paint and then repeat.

I am a Korean American Artist, Wife, Mother, and Breast Cancer Survivor living in Los Angeles. I am forever grateful for my family and community support and look forward to continuing this next chapter of my life!