DODGE CITY, Kan. (AP) — Thoughts of cancer patients, their struggles and their victories occupied James Mages' mind for most of 2008.
The Wright native, who teaches art and graphic design at Hays High School, spent much of last year working on his "Leaves of Life" sculpture for the Dreiling/Schmidt Cancer Institute at Hays Medical Center.
The center wanted a new sculpture to replace an old mosaic honoring cancer victims, which began deteriorating when moisture and warmth caused its wooden pieces to expand and contract.
When they decided the old mosaic could no longer be repaired, medical center officials approached Mages about creating sketches for a new piece that would pay tribute to both cancer victims and those who had fought the disease and won.
The center later commissioned the piece from Mages, and his work began.
The completed sculpture, which consists of three massive tree trunks and a canopy of metal leaves bearing the names of cancer victims and survivors, was installed earlier this month on the walls of the cancer institute.
Mages said when institute employees helped install the leaves, they recalled memories of cancer patients they had known.
"It just brought back up to my mind, 'Wow, these people are still being honored,'" he said in a telephone interview. "Because anytime you see the name and all that, you're recognizing and giving them honor by people thinking about them and thinking, 'Oh, yeah, they're doing great,' and all that."
Mages graduated from Dodge City High School in 1970 and earned an associate's degree in art from Dodge City Community College in 1972. He has taught in Hays since 1975.
After a couple of years of discussing possible designs with medical center officials, Mages began working on the sculpture about a year ago. It took him nearly a year to complete the project because he had to work around his teaching schedule.
Mages carved the tree trunks out of red oak because he could stain the wood a golden color, which would reflect the color of the leaves. He also had students at Northwest Kansas Technical College in Goodland cut thousands of various-sized leaves out of metal.
As Mages worked, he took pains over small details to make the sculpture as lifelike as possible. For instance, he used a wire welder to create veins on some leaves, then applied a wire brush to the patina to make sure the veins would stand out.
He also used a variety of techniques to give each tree trunk a different texture.
"If you look at it, it just looks like a grove of three trees," he said.
As an artist, Mages has always found inspiration in trees — going so far as to sketch them in whenever he draws a picture of a house.
While Mages was working on the sculpture, he kept thinking of Joyce Kilmer's famous poem "Trees," which ends with the couplet "Poems are made by fools like me/But only God can make a tree."
"I was thinking, 'What would this world be without trees?'" he said. "It wouldn't be much, really."
When medical center officials commissioned the sculpture, they envisioned a piece that would celebrate cancer patients past and present, said cancer service line administrator Margie Hammerschmidt. They also wanted something that could be taken down easily in case it had to be moved.
She said that Mages came back with a wonderful concept for the sculpture, and the completed work exceeded everyone's expectations.
"It gives me goosebumps looking at this," Hammerschmidt said. "What a wonderful, life-full display."
The center covered part of the sculpture's cost, and the rest came from the Lanita Smith Fund, named for a former medical center employee who succumbed to breast cancer in 2007.
Three-hundred of the sculpture's 600 metal leaves are already engraved with cancer patients' names, and people may buy a leaf for a donation of $250. Those donations help the medical center provide certain programs and replace equipment.
Hammerschmidt said that the sculpture will mean different things to different people, depending on their experience with cancer.
"Certainly, for those that have had loved ones that have died from the disease, there's some healing just to be able to put a name there and recognize that individual's journey," she said. "And for those that are survivors, just that celebration of being able to know, 'I have journeyed, and' — I don't know if you'd call it a badge of honor, but 'Here I am. I'm claiming it.'"
Mages said he was happy with the finished sculpture, which has drawn praise from its viewers. But he added that the work was about cancer patients, not himself.
"I'm just a vessel to be used to commemorate these people," he said.
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.