Art Through it All

In late November, I had the chance to sit down with Elena Flores to talk about her life, art and her illness. As we sat in Sweetwaters at Westgate, Elena was so joyful and full of hope. This article was written at the beginning of December.  Elena passed away on Dec. 31 surrounded by her loved ones.  

I remember as a little girl staring at her paintings,” said Elena Flores about watching her grandma paint. “It was like magic, and then when I drew that seemed like magic to me.” From a young age, Flores was fascinated by art and would take classes at an art institute in Flint, Michigan, where she was raised.

“I just love the idea of creating, making something that didn’t exist before just seemed natural,” Flores said. She would go on to pursue a Bachelors of Fine Arts in college. Flores was a practicing artist but struggled to maintain a steady source of income from art alone. After talking to someone who had just finished student teaching, Flores was inspired to try it. She grew up playing teacher with her five siblings but had pushed away from a teaching career because she didn’t want to simply do the same thing as her mom.

Flores ended up combining her love for art and teaching. She taught elementary school art for 16 years. While she loved teaching elementary, there came a time when Flores desired to share more of her knowledge and artwork with students.

Flores interviewed for a job at Community High School 13 years ago. The interviewing process was competitive because she was replacing Kris Hermanson, an established teacher at Community. She met with Peter Ways, who was the dean at the time, and then interviewed with a committee composed of Ways, teachers, students and a parent. She talked about her own art, what she could offer to Community and why Community was a good fit for her. She got the position.

Her first day teaching at Community was confusing, with how the rooms were numbered and some of the slang for these rooms, such as The Boneyard or Bodley Hall; however, she also recalled how warm and welcoming the school was to her.

“I tried to show it’s about creating and whatever you create,” Flores said. In her teaching she has pulled away from a prescribed art education in order to empower her students to create. To do this, she offers classes such as mixed media and open studio.

“I’ve learned from students and that’s helped me in my art,” Flores said. “It’s made me a better artist.”

In April 2015, Flores was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Receiving this diagnoses left Flores feeling scared, bewildered and frozen. After this she began to educate herself to understand the disease. She advocated for herself about getting surgery quickly. For Flores, the cancer was unexpected. It will never be cured; it is always something she will have to manage. She’s been managing her cancer for the past three years.

At the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, Flores was asked to split her time between Community and Pioneer. Driven to teach, Flores ignored signs from her body that she shouldn’t have returned to school. These were signs of an infection that landed Flores in the hospital twice. She has been on sick leave since.

Being away from Community has been hard for Flores; she misses her students and being at Community. Flores’ friends, family, husband and other Community teachers have supported her along her journey. She has also been continuing her art; with her time off, she’s been creating pieces for family and friends. She will be starting chemotherapy soon.

“My hope is to come back and to thrive and to beat this cancer, I mean, beat it in terms of that I can go back to work, and do what I do best,” Flores said. She hopes to come back to Community and continue to teach and learn from her students. She also hopes to share what her illness has taught her.

“It [ cancer] puts grace and gratitude in your life,” Flores said. “Nothing is promised.”