After creating crucifix, former Fargo artist diagnosed with cancer carries his cross

BOZEMAN, Mont. — The San Damiano crucifix, a central focal point at Resurrection University Catholic Parish, holds special significance for Adam Schwankl: He both worships the God it represents and fashioned the unique rendition.

“It’s special for me to go in there and see it; it’s humbling,” says the artist, 30, formerly of Fargo, who was commissioned several years ago to create a crucifix as part of the church’s renovation. “I didn’t take a lot of artistic liberties — it’s a very traditional image — but I used a brighter palette,” Adam says, noting that it took about a year to complete.

The Rev. Val Zdilla says churches usually search widely to commission such work, but he was impressed by the artistic vision of Adam, a parishioner and friend. “I saw his rendition of Our Lady of Guadalupe and it was so touching,” he says.

“It’s a nice extension of our history, with an eye on the love of the people who live here,” referencing the area’s Franciscan heritage.

After the deal was sealed, Zdilla says he was happy to step back.

“I put my trust in this man’s work,” he says. “It was all based on a gentleman’s agreement, and he was definitely moved by God’s spirit.”

Now, just three years after its dedication, the parish is showing its appreciation by raising money for Adam’s medical costs from a recurrence of Hodgkin lymphoma with an art sale of his creations. Indeed, the suffering of Christ, depicted so vibrantly in what Adam calls his most significant work, has become a deeper part of his own story as he carries his own cross through cancer.

“It’s hard when a young person has any kind of illness that could be terminal,” Zdilla says. “To see him have to suffer so much at such a young age breaks my heart.”

‘A divine tap’

Zdilla describes Adam as a “beautiful soul” with “goodness to his demeanor.”

“He’s fun, he’s engaging and he knows his craft,” he says. “I think he highlights the strengths of the common person most of all.”

Despite what he’s facing, Adam credits his illness with strengthening his faith, calling it “a divine tap on the shoulder,” and the San Damiano cross project a turning point.

“The less time I was putting into (my art), the more God was sending me commissions,” he says of his robust return to it, leading to an in-progress website featuring his pieces, www.adamschwankl.com.

“We don’t have guaranteed time, so we should be doing what we love and pursuing and developing our gifts,” Adam says. “Sometimes, even not consciously, we can lose our way.”

He was there once, he says, but now, he’s replaced self-reliance and pride with an extreme dependence on God’s mercy and the compassion of others. To that end, Adam is turning to friends, including those in Fargo-Moorhead where he first discovered a love for basketball, developed his artistic passions through the encouragement of Kathryn Luther at Shanley High School and learned to appreciate the outdoors through summers at Otter Tail Lake.

With his personal and family’s resources now exhausted, a GoFundMe account, “Help Adam Schwankl Beat Cancer,” has been set up to help. And with guidance from his wife, Valerie, who has degrees in classical Chinese medicine and herbalism, Adam is doing what he can to reverse the cancer through eating sensibly and taking care of his body in other ways.

An Oasis of Healing in Mesa, Ariz., an oncology clinic that incorporates both conventional and alternative medicine, has provided the bulk of his treatment. His mother, Fargo artist and gallery owner Liz Schwankl, plans to spend some time there soon with Adam while Valerie stays home to work. Liz says the two have always been close, calling Adam a “Renaissance man” who is multi-talented as a painter, musician, songwriter, poet, athlete and comedian.

“He’s just got this spunk about him,” she says, along with a “Christ-like love for human beings.”

And though happy to be counted among his mentors, she says Adam’s talent is his own, something that became apparent around age 8 when he won his first art award.

“He’s also always been a thinker,” she adds, and in earlier years, approached his faith through reading works of philosophers and asking deep questions. “He was looking for truth, and the more he investigated it, the more he fell in love with Christ and his church.”

Despite what he’s been through, she says Adam’s never felt sorry for himself.

“I’ve never seen him cry over his illness or been in self-pity — not once. … He’s got this rock-solid faith and there’s nothing that’s going to take his eyes off God.”

“Our faith informs us that it’s all going to be OK, no matter what,” Adam says. “Even if our bodies are destroyed, we have a supernatural hope rooted in Christ that this isn’t all there is.”

Through the journey, Valerie has learned, too, including how to best accompany Adam.

“Initially, I wanted to be able to step in and offer as much (professional) support as possible,” she says. “I eventually realized he needed me more as his wife and not so much as a health care practitioner.”

Their shared suffering led to growing together, and together toward God.

“The depth of healing that can happen when you start unraveling things in your life can take a really long time and come in waves,” Valerie says. “That part of the journey is just as important as the final destination of being healed.”

She looks forward to the day Adam can fully reclaim his artistic endeavors.

“Our walls are decked out with all his paintings,” Valerie says. “When he’s doing his art, he shines with God’s love.”

Adam says he sees cancer, which can be approached either with fear or an openness to grace, as a gift.

“When you think about healing, definitely the wiser choice is to choose the grace and gratitude,” he says.

For Adam, this comes primarily from considering the cross.

“We can offer our sufferings and trials to Christ’s suffering on the cross for the salvation of souls,” he says. “God can bring good out of anything; we have the ultimate example in Christ.”

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo.You can find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.

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