Koopalings, cake and healing at SECCA

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Allen Choyce, 14, stands beside his Super Mario-inspired cake painting and Dewey's Bakery's rendering at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. (photo by Lauren Barber)

Clandestine Koopalings, question blocks, mushrooms and a goomba — all icons of Super Mario — adorned the top of a Dewey’s Bakery cake in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts, or SECCA, on July 6.

Arts for Life — a nonprofit that provides arts programming for children with serious illnesses and disabilities — held its third annual showcase at SECCA featuring cake-form renderings of patient’s sweets-inspired paintings. As always, patient Allen Choyce took the staff’s prompt to another level, complementing his artwork with a mischievous tale.

“[My cake] is based off a Super Mario game,” Choyce said. “The premise is that Bowser, the main antagonist in that game, hid himself and his children (the Koopalings) in the cake and then they give it to Mario and they jump out at him.”

Arts for Life recruited bakers in the Triad region to bring their patients’ paintings into actuality.

“As soon as one of my decorators knew it was a Super Mario design, I was like, ‘This is the best one we could have picked,’” Danielle DiLizio, cake decorating manager at Dewey’s, said. “We ran with his idea to put the Dewey’s touch on it because we always like to go a little above and beyond.”

The team’s interpretation delighted Choyce.

“Not only did they re-create it in a way that makes it better but they also added in more things from Super Mario,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

Choyce, 14, lives with sickle cell disease and has participated in all three Arts for Life events at SECCA.

“When SECCA holds these shows, it’s a great opportunity to release the creativity stockpiled in a lot of kids’ minds,” Choyce said. “When you’re in the hospital, there aren’t a lot of things you can do, and Arts for Life is an outlet.”

Kelsey Brown, the program assistant at the Brenner’s chapter of the organization and a friendly face to Choyce, teaches art in the hospital’s oncology and hematology unit.

“Most of the patients have long-term illnesses so I get to know them and their families,” Brown said. “It’s awesome to be able to go in their hospital room and give them a choice of something fun they can do. They’re allowed to say no when so often in the hospital they can’t.”

Learn more about Arts for Life at artsforlifenc.org.

Choyce consistently impresses Brown.

“Allen’s an incredible artist already and is always doing cool stuff,” she said. “He changes the themes [of our projects] to video games and shows he likes. He’s the most incredible kid, [and] super talented and so smart. He wants to be a doctor.”

Choyce expressed gratitude for Arts for Life.

“When I was admitted into Brenner’s Hospital I sometimes needed a way to pass the time,” Choyce continued. “I’d go over to the Arts for Life room and draw. Drawing has always been one of my more prominent passions.”

Arts for Life’s collaboration with SECCA and Triad bakeries cultivated a dynamic and poignant one-night exhibit.

“SECCA’s been an incredible partner,” Rachel Zink, co-founder and executive director of Arts for Life, said. “The bakeries went above and beyond, too. It was a different project than just asking a bakery to donate for an event; this is a unique, creative, fun way for them to connect with kids in the hospital who need a little bit of sweetness in their life.”

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Betsey McLawhorn, Brenner’s Arts for Life program director, said shows like “Cake Boss” and “Cupcake Wars” inspired her to develop this year’s project.

“Every year, I try to find a new group to collaborate with and we hadn’t done culinary arts yet,” McLawhorn said. “The bakers we engaged were fabulous [and] for the kids to be able to see their artwork in a museum is a big deal. It’s wonderful for them to be able to get out of the hospital and enjoy this.”

The pop-up exhibit showcased 11 framed paintings. The 100 attendees could enter raffles for the cakes, but proceeds from the paintings directly benefitted the artist’s family. Several children also participated in a cake walk, a raffle-based game similar to musical chairs, for small prizes.

“It’s a great feeling to find out that other people who appreciate art as much — if not more — than you do, like your art,” Choyce said.

Choyce’s mother found herself reflecting on the bigger picture, though.

“This is a wonderful night,” Caren Choyce, said. “It’s very inspiring and encouraging. I know this whole thing is going to be part of showing him he can go above and beyond to accomplish anything that he wants as long as he puts his mind to it. This is an example of what he can achieve.”

“We’ve taught him not to let his illness make him… that he can be who he wants to be,” she added. “We tell him, ‘Just because you have your illness it doesn’t mean that great things can’t happen,’ because look what’s happening tonight.”

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Allen Choyce (middle) with family members (from left) Adrian, Charles, Caren and Alex at Arts for Life’s event at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art. (photo by Lauren Barber)