Nancy Chakrin, a Minnetonka-based landscape artist and photographer, turned to art after a 23-year hiatus following her brush with cancer in 2000. Photo by Ackerman + Gruber

By Pamela Schmid

When a friend urged her to take part in a painting competition 17 years ago, Nancy Chakrin declined. She had just completed treatment for breast cancer and was busy caring for her aging parents. And she hadn’t picked up a paint brush in 23 years.

Then Chakrin reconsidered. She spent three weeks painting a stormy sky over a lonely country road and discovered the regenerative power of art.

“Being able to focus on art gets your mind off the stress of dealing with illness,” said Chakrin, 74, of Minnetonka.

Chakrin went on to paint and photograph landscapes that are displayed in dozens of medical and wellness centers throughout the Twin Cities. Her contributions as a healing artist have landed her on this year’s “50 Over 50” list. Compiled by AARP Minnesota and Pollen, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit, the list celebrates Minnesotans over 50 who’ve made a significant mark on their communities.

Others on the list have also turned health challenges into opportunities. Robin Raplinger, of the Mesabi Range city of Virginia, credits a stroke for nudging him toward volunteerism and a sharpened focus on endurance sports. Marty Weintraub, of Duluth, came back from Hodgkin’s lymphoma to build the digital marketing firm Aimclear.

A new perspective on life
“These individuals are inspiring because of what they faced and because of their will to overcome,” said Seth Boffeli, AARP Minnesota communications director.

“They’re a true testament to what the human spirit can accomplish.”

Chakrin had given up an early career as a landscape painting to pursue a corporate career as an art director. But her brush with breast cancer in 2000, for which she underwent 30 days of radiation, led her back to art.

She filled canvas after canvas with natural scenes depicting clouds, water, rocks and trees. “Painting nature became a very important part of my healing,” she recalled.

Among her contributions is an interactive photography exhibit of yoga-based practices with her business partner, Laurie Ellis-Young, that has appeared in 28 health and education centers in the Upper Midwest. In 2013 the women founded BreathLogic Inc., a nonprofit that offers “breath literacy” in education, health care and corporate settings.

“I’m simply delighted that my exhibits have provided a tranquil response, ignited conversations and inspired wellness practices,” Chakrin said.

Raplinger, 53, an attorney, also finds inspiration in nature—via kayak, canoe, bike and skis. While he’s always been fit, he suffered a stroke in 2002 that left him with lingering memory and speech issues, a golf-ball-sized scar inside his head and a newfound dedication to fitness. He bought a kayak, took up Nordic ski racing and cycles about 3,250 miles a year.

The stroke “made me realize that my physical abilities could be gone in a second,” he said. “I quit going, ‘Oh, I’d like to do that someday.’ Now it’s, ‘You do it now or as soon as you can, because someday might not transpire.’ ”

Still rebounding from his stroke, Raplinger won a seat on the Virginia City Council, serving a four-year term. He sat on boards that help youth and combat domestic violence, and now works on environmental sustainability and community development issues. Recently, he volunteered for the Giants Ridge Ski Patrol.

Weintraub, 58, did not want cancer to define him. Less than a year after his diagnosis with Stage 3B Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2005, a friend reminded him “that before I got sick I would never settle for complacency.” Soon after, Weintraub drew up plans for Aimclear. The company now boasts 24 employees and has been named to Inc. magazine’s 500/5000 list of fastest-growing private companies for the past six years.

“When you get over cancer,” he said, “you get a massive burst of energy and gratitude.”

Pamela Schmid is a writer living in St. Paul, Minn.

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