Richard Young met Cheryl Shurtleff at Boise State University in 1978. They both were getting their master’s in art education and bonded when they did their master’s final exhibition.
He was struck by her tight-fitting blue jeans, little T-shirts and the fire in her eyes.
“She drove a 1953 Nash Metropolitan, which we — I — still have,” he says. “She had really long, straight hair down to her waist, and then one day she didn’t. It was curly and that would become one of the things she was known for. She was pretty sexy.”
They made a connection. He returned to his family home in Michigan for a year, then returned to Boise in 1979 because of her. They started their lives together in a small house at 12th and Resseguie streets. Shurtleff and Young married in 1986 at the Ada County Courthouse. They forged their careers in the BSU art department and as artists.
“We worked together all day long, then came home and did art together and all that good stuff,” Young says. “It was definitely a creative partnership, as well as a love affair.”
Their love affair ended on Sept. 4 when Shurtleff died of metastatic breast cancer that had invaded her lungs.
Shurtleff was born in Oregon and grew up in Payette. She’s in the Payette High School Hall of Fame, along with filmmaker Michael Hoffman and baseball great Harmon Killebrew.
She was an artist of uncompromising creativity who worked across mediums as the limitations created by her afflictions directed the course of her work: intense black-and-white large and small scale drawings of wild scenes, assemblages and quirky cat hair-sculpture. The Boise Art Museum and the Portland Art Museum both have her work in their collections .
As a teacher, she knew how to reach and inspire her students beyond their expectations of themselves. She loved to hike and snowshoe and lived her life with a unique flair for contemporary style from her striking eye glasses to her shoes that could have been sculpture.
For nearly 30 years, Young — a painter — was her partner, husband, artistic companion and caregiver, a role that slowly came to define their connection more and more.
“Her body was not always her best friend,” Young says. “She stepped out of the limelight when she was managing pain, which was often. I think all caregivers think about the difficulty of watching that person try to manage pain, and with breast cancer there’s a lot of pain and agony.”
Shurtleff struggled physically for much of her life, suffering rheumatic fever and nephritis as a little girl, rheumatoid arthritis that worsened after her first round with breast cancer 10 years ago, and other auto-immune disorders that followed. Through it all, Young was by her side. Then everything got harder when the cancer returned a year ago — this time in her lungs. By the time the diagnosis was complete, it was Stage IV.
“Cancer is an all-consuming disease. It affects everyone in your world,” he says. “Your relationship between a man and a woman changes. The idea of supporting someone else is taken to a whole new level when you’re supporting someone with cancer. You do enter into a whole different reality.”
The first nine months after the diagnosis went fairly smoothly, and they both stayed positive.
A few months later they started work on an art studio for both of them in the backyard of their Harrison Boulevard bungalow. Shurtleff spent weeks working with Young and architect Sherry McKibben on its design, but was never able to work in her part of the space.
Young and Shurtleff worked with the doctors and nurses at Mountain State Tumor Institute, and got a second opinion from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.
“Then, as it advanced, she began to have more troubles breathing, and things got worse,” he says.
Always petite, Schurtleff went down to 80 pounds. “Every bone was visible through her skin. Every vertebrae. Every articulation of her pelvis and the sacrum. I became aware of anatomy very quickly,” Young says.
That’s when treating the disease became painful and difficult. She tried the latest cancer drug, IBrance, which comes with hormone-suppressing injections that nearly pierced her body.
“It was horrible to watch,” he says.
It all strains the relationship between caregiver and loved one, between a husband and wife.
“I was on call increasingly as she got worse — 24/7. Doing everything for her: Helping her eat, go to the bathroom. She couldn’t even grab onto a pill. And there were some pretty horrible debilitating things that you have to watch that person go through,” he says. “I’m not perfect in many ways, and I know I lost my patience more than once.”
He relied on friends throughout. Driek Zirinsky would take Shurtleff to her chemo appointments, keep her company and comfort her. Her sister Shawna Forsdick pitched in often. And there were others.
And it wasn’t all dire all the time. Shurtleff had a remarkable spirit and will to live. She giggled often about the ironies of her situation, ordered the latest, coolest accessories — a sporty walker, a black carbon fiber brace when she lost control of her right foot, an Apple Watch that she adored. When she felt good, she continued to work, moving to a digital medium. She sketched her medication to keep them straight, wrote in small notebooks and tried to put up a good front.
“She didn’t express that much of her internal thoughts,” he says. “She became more and more withdrawn as it progressed. Every time I asked her how she was doing, she just said, ‘Fine.’ She really had the intention that she was going to survive it, because she had already survived so much.”
Then the news came that nothing was working, Young reached out to hospice, but she died four days later at their home with Young and her sister at her side, an experience that really bonded the two of them.
“Seeing her pass away — plus this intense experience of giving her pain medication to get her through it, watching so intensely to her every expression, the slightest nuance, or rolling eye, hands moving, arms moving — this intense and constant watching and observing, watching and observing for many hours,” Young says. “I was very anxiety ridden through the whole thing.
“At the end there is a peace to it, I admit, that evolution as she got closer to death until her breathing ceased,” Young says. “At some point, it’s a blessing of sorts, even though that’s a little cliché. She’s out of pain; she’s out of agony.”
Young is just beginning to step back into his life. He returned to teaching at Boise State this week and is working on the university’s new fine arts building and exploring the idea of naming part of the structure for Shurtleff.
It may be years before Young truly understands what he went through. He is just beginning to deal with his experiences through his art and to think about the future.
“It’s definitely different now that she’s not around. The house seems to echo without her. I really haven’t been able to come into the studio and get back into it. It’s hard,” he says. “It makes you aware of the reality of death. I think that’s a transformative experience that I don’t really understand yet. It’s pretty mind-boggling.”