Breast Cancer Awareness Month: Reflections on Art, Hope and Healing dedicated to my daughter Robin Kovary

Robin’s Roses, 2000

In 2001 the Mayo Clinic Art Collection acquired some of my work through The Julie Saul Gallery in New York and a few weeks ago I received a call from the collection’s director, Sally Enders, requesting permission for the work to be published in an up-coming book about the collection. Of course I am delighted.

Front cover of Mayo Clinic Art Collection brochure “Art and Healing”
In speaking about health care, one of the founders of the Mayo Clinic, William J. Mayo, M.D., declared, “We know all too well the necessity for efficient management, but there is a spiritual as well as material aspect in the care of sick people.”

Long before the word “holistic” became popular the Mayo Clinic had established a tradition of treating the “whole person” and that philosophy has resulted in a reputation for being pioneers in compassionate care. My wife’s mother, Betty Thompson, was a recipient of that care when she travelled from North Carolina to Rochester, Minnesota for treatment of a rare form of blood cancer which later took her life. Yet before she died she praised the doctors who gave her the attention, hope and compassion she had not received elsewhere and who were the very first physicians to contact the family with expressions of sympathy and warm memories of a wonderful woman.

In a brochure about the art collection, “HOPE” is listed as the theme of the Mayo Clinic’s photography collection and works are displayed for the particular benefit of cancer patients. In addition to my own color botanical pieces, the collection contains works by Elliot Erwitt, Jean-Henri Lartigue and Keri Pickett.

The Mayo Clinic Art Collection’s Photography, Harold Feinstein’s “Flamingo Flower”, 2000, on right page

Robin Kovary with Ava, 1997

It has always delighted me to know that my photographs might bring hope to people suffering from any kind of illness or injury. But the one person who mattered the most to me in this regard was my daughter, Robin Kovary, who died of breast cancer in 2001. Robin was a well-known and well-loved dog trainer and behaviorist in New York City. She co-founded the New York City Coalition for Dogs, which helped establish dog runs throughout the city and also founded the American Dog Trainers Network which operated a free 24 hour hotline dedicated to all and any issues pertaining to the welfare of dogs. She trained dogs and their owners throughout the city and was sought after by Hollywood film makers for her dog training skills.

But it was her seminal work in establishing pet therapy in New York hospitals that catapulted her into heroine status in the eyes and hearts of so many. She understood the spiritual and emotional impact of the pet-human bond on the healing process and was able to witness first hand the improvement in peoples’ condition — emotional, physical and spiritual — because of it. A New York Times article entitled When Therapy Wags its Tail describes Robin’s work at St. Vincent’s Hospital where she brought Destiny, a beautiful golden Lab owned by photographer Bruce Weber, into the geriatric ward to comfort the people there.

Dogs offer nonjudgmental affection. It seems basic, but over a period of time it’s amazing how the patients open up and become more relaxed. In hospitals there is very little touch, but a dog offers that.

The Robin Kovary Run for Small Dogs in Washington Square Park, New York City

St. Vincent’s opened its chapel for Robin’s memorial service. It was one of the most moving days of my life to see the very long line of people out the door of the chapel who came from all over the city with their dogs to honor Robin and her legacy. Not long afterward the Washington Square Park Dog Run for Small Dogs was dedicated to her.

Here is a tribute written just this year from one of her fellow dog-lovers, Shelley Davis, on the anniversary of her death January 6, 2001.

Without the tireless efforts of Robin Kovary and the friends who loved her, there would likely be no Washington Square Park Dog Run, or First Run or any other dog run in the city. Robin laid the foundation for what thousands of others enjoy today. She and a small group of friends (I am grateful to have been included in that group) worked tirelessly for years to create the foundation for what is now a well established web of dog runs throughout the city. Robin as you know, was honored by having the small dog run in Washington Square Park named after her.

Without Robin, I can almost guarantee that there would have been no clinical trial at St. Vincent’s Hospital that changed the law to make pet facilitated therapy legal in all acute care hospitals in New York State. I remember the many times that Robin called me with a TV spot for Szuki and myself to promote the concept of pet therapy to the public. I remember the last minute calls to drive up to the Children’s Hospital of St. Luke’s Roosevelt to work with children who were feeling lonely and overwhelmed by their illnesses. I remember the late night phone calls asking for help in editing an article for a magazine or newspaper. She was my best friend and definitely my mentor and inspiration in continuing my work in the canine community.

Robin had been diagnosed with inflammatory breast disease, one of the most aggressive forms of the disease and was given only three years to live after her masectomy. So when the disease came back she opted out of the debilitating chemo and radiation treatments which had so sickened her prior to surgery and decided to live out the rest of her time doing things she loved, helping dogs and people and finding ways to stay inspired. Sometimes when she lay in bed in the afternoon she watched The Oprah Show. Turns out Oprah is a dog lover in addition to being someone who championed many causes that Robin cared about, including breast cancer awareness. Often Robin would call to tell me to turn on the show to listen to someone particularly inspiring.

As serendipity would have it, Robin and Oprah shared something in common that intersected through me. Robin had chosen a photograph of mine to accompany her in her final days. She particularly loved it and I named it Robin’s Roses. My work has been published multiple times in Oprah’s publications, but she and her staff particularly loved this photo and used it three times in various publications: first in O Magazine (August, 2008), next as a a two page spread in her first coffee table book Oprah’s Big Book of Happiness, and finally on the cover of her book Words that Matter.

The dedication to Robin at Panopticon Gallery, 2010

Shortly after that book came out, the publishers agreed to donate some of them for my commemoration of Robin at Panopticon Gallery in 2010 where proceeds from the purchase of a special edition of Robin’s Roses went to support Susan B. Komen for the Cure in Boston. I’m not sure how successful we were in raising funds, but for me it was a way to use my art to celebrate my daughter’s inspired life. As an exemplar of the wisdom guiding the Mayo Clinic in its own treatment of disease, Robin understood that love, hope and compassion are potent medicines in the treatment of disease. For her, it was the unconditional love that dogs so beautifully impart, which brought hope and healing back to so many people. I will feel eternally grateful if my photographs can in some small measure do the same.