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Masterworks exhibition at CU Anschutz showcases masterpieces by Impressionists, Picasso and Rodin

"Mother and Child," a piece by Pablo Picasso and Jacques Villon
Visitors to the Masterworks exhibit at CU Anschutz admire “Mother and Child,” a piece by Pablo Picasso and Jacques Villon. Photo by Eric Stephenson.

When Drs. Morton and Tobia Mower began collecting art nearly 20 years ago, they didn’t plan to create the priceless collection featuring masterpieces from Monet, Renoir, Rodin and Picasso that are now on display at CU Anschutz.

“There was an opportunity. We bought—and we bought, and we bought,” said Morton Mower, MD, an adjunct distinguished professor of cardiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine (SOM).

“It got a little out of hand,” he joked.

Robin, Morton and Tobia Mower
Robin, Morton and Tobia Mower stand in front of Renoir’s “The Young Mother.” The Masterworks exhibit features selections from the Mowers’ private collection. Photo by Lindsay Appel.

Fortunately, their passion for collecting has grown into a passion for sharing. Now, 21 of their finest pieces are on display at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. The show, titled “Masterworks,” also has paintings from Impressionist masters including Cassatt and Degas and later painters including Chagall.

The collection is one that well-known museums would envy but in an intimate setting. Visitors to the cozy, 1,000-square-foot Art Gallery at the Fulginiti Pavilion for Bioethics and Humanities are able to linger in front of the pieces to admire them and examine artists’ techniques. The gallery is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the show runs through May 24. It is free to attend.

Mort Mower said the works on display are the “to die for” pieces from their collection of about 350 works and need to be shared with the public.

“I like to think we’re liberating the art,” Mower said. “If you shut it up in the basement, nobody sees it. What good is that? This is the opportunity to get something more out of it.”

Chancellor Elliman: ‘We should be grateful’

Richard Elliman
CU Anschutz Chancellor Richard Elliman speaks during the opening of the Masterworks exhibit. Photo by Eric Stephenson.

The university celebrated the exhibition’s opening with a reception on March 30. CU President Bruce Benson, CU Anschutz Chancellor Don Elliman and SOM Dean John Reilly attended to thank the Mowers and get a sneak peek at the collection.

The exhibit gives CU Anschutz students, faculty and staff, as well as visitors to the hospitals on the Anschutz campus the chance to take a moment to recharge, Elliman said.

“We’ve known for many, many years how powerful art is as a healing tool,” Elliman said. “For us to be able to have this exhibit here adds immeasurably to the quality of life on this campus, and we should be grateful.”

Many museums and galleries have sought to display the Mowers’ art, including museums with higher profiles. Exhibiting at CU Denver felt right, Toby Mower said.

“A lot of people have said, ‘Why here?’” she said. “My answer has always been, ‘Why not here?’”

Auguste Rodin’s “Eternal Springtime” is one of the works on display as part of the Masterworks exhibit. Photo by Lindsay Appel.

The Mowers and their masterpieces

The Mowers have been married since 1965, and Mort teasingly calls it is “a mixed marriage.” He loves pop artists like Andy Warhol and the graffiti artist Keith Haring. Toby favors Impressionists. There have been a few disagreements over acquisitions as their collection has evolved.

“He has a plan, and I have a plan, but we haven’t decided whose plan to follow,” Toby joked. “We buy what we love.”

They began collecting in the 1990s. Their collection has grown so large that their Denver condominium overflows with paintings and sculptures. Works from illustrious artists hang in the kitchen and are stashed under the bed.

The Mowers’ collection includes about 170 sketches by Rembrandt. Theirs is one of the largest privately owned collections of the Dutch master’s sketches, and the best works will be on display at the Fulginiti this fall.

See the artworks

The Masterworks catalogue is online.

By the time they started a collection, Mort had become a renowned cardiologist and had co-invented the implantable cardioverter defibrillator, a medical device that senses and corrects abnormal heart rates. The defibrillator can stop heart attacks and will restart a stopped heart, and about 800,000 people in the U.S. have had them implanted to prevent sudden cardiac death.

Toby is a nurse and an advocate for substance abuse treatment. She has an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University in Israel, and she helped the university develop a curriculum about how to treat addictions.

The Mowers also have personal ties to CU Anschutz. Their daughter, Robin, is a clinical oncology pharmacist and graduate of the CU Skaggs School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences. When the Mowers moved to Colorado a few years ago, Mort joined the faculty of the school of medicine.

Art at CU Anschutz

Since opening in 2012, the Art Gallery at the Fulginiti Pavilion has become a hidden gem. The privately funded gallery has put on 16 major exhibits and welcomed more than 30,000 visitors.

Matthew Wynia, MD, directs the Center for Bioethics and Humanities and sometimes is asked why the medical campus has an art gallery. He believes there is a valuable connection between art and medicine. Wynia said art can provoke conversations that bridge cultural divides and that studying art helps medical students and doctors improve their observational skills. Finally, it helps prevent burnout.

“Being in an art gallery is a healing thing for people whose jobs are filled with stress,” Wynia said.

“Solomon and the Queen of Sheba” by Mark Chagall
Claude Monet's "River and Mill Near Giverny"
“River and Mill Near Giverny” by Claude Monet

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Treatment for multiple recurrent meningioma

Jill Penafiel (second from left) with her daughters and husband
Jill Penafiel (second from left) with her daughters and husband

Ten years ago, Jill Penafiel was watching her teenage daughters play competitive volleyball and noticed that she couldn’t see whether the ball went over the net or not.  She blamed her failing vision on age; after all, she was nearing 40. But when her left eyeball started to protrude slightly, she decided that “something is not quite right here.”

A trip to the doctor—the first of many—confirmed her suspicion. Her left optic nerve was swollen, pushing her eye forward. When she underwent a test of her field of vision, she kept asking when the test would start, not realizing that it had already begun. She was “flunking with flying colors.”

“The doctor said it could be MS or it could be a brain tumor,” she said. “I stopped listening after that. It was just too horrifying.”

Jill had been employed by the University of Colorado since 1993 and was working on the Anschutz Medical Campus at that time. There was no doubt in her mind that she would seek treatment at CU. But she could hardly have imagined the long path her care would follow—and the collaboration between multiple physicians that would ultimately save her vision.

Diagnosis:  Meningioma

In 2007, further testing showed that Penafiel had a meningioma—a benign tumor—almost as big as her thumb wrapped around the optic nerve and invading her brain. Kevin Lillehei, MD, professor and director of the Neuro-Oncology Program, remembers the tumor as “quite significant” because it had invaded the orbit, the bony socket that protects the eyeball and allows the optic nerve to pass from the eye to the brain.

“I don’t feel like I am just a case here. I know my doctors really care.”

“When you go into the orbit, you have all the tiny nerves feeding the muscles that move the eye and you put them at risk,” Lillehei said. “You can end up with good vision, but one eye doesn’t move like the other and that causes continuous double vision.”

Lillehei performed a frontotemporal craniotomy, going underneath the left frontal lobe, drilling away bone at the skull base and removing bone along the lateral part of the orbit. He removed the tumor piecemeal, stopping short of taking all of it because he believed it would be too risky—Penafiel could lose her vision in the eye.

She remembers the first eye test after the day-long surgery. “They handed me a tiny chart to read,” she said. “I could read it! And they were all so excited, saying, ‘She can see!’”

Lillehei remembers that day with characteristic understatement. “We were quite pleased.”

The history:  Chernobyl

Jill Penafiel
Jill Penafiel

Like any person who experiences an unexpected health crisis, Penafiel asked, “Why me?” Lillehei may have provided a clue to that question when he told her that he thought the meningioma had been growing for as long as 20 years.

“He asked me what I was doing 20 years ago,” Penafiel said. “And I told him I was a teenager on scholarship living in Finland.” She arrived in the country in June 1986—five weeks after the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl. Living with a host family on an archipelago, Penafiel ate fish out of the Baltic Sea every day for three months while a radioactive cloud moved through the area.

“We have no way of knowing if this caused her meningioma,” Lillehei said. “Some are just spontaneous. But we do know that some can be induced by previous radiation. We are seeing that in a pediatric population about 15 to 20 years after they are treated with radiation. She fits that profile.”

Pivotal question:  What kind of birth control?

Penafiel’s tumor was an atypical meningioma (WHO grade II), meaning it was particularly aggressive. “We knew this one had to be watched very carefully,” Lillehei said.

In 2007, after the surgery, she underwent 30 radiation treatments, spent nearly four months recovering her strength, and then put the episode behind her except for annual MRI tests to check on the original tumor.

Six years later, at Thanksgiving 2013, she received more bad news. The original tumor had not changed, but she had developed two additional meningiomas, one at top of her head and one on the side.

“I asked, ‘Why again?’” Penafiel said. “It was hard for my family to hear this news.”

She was referred to Laurie Gaspar, MD, MBA, professor and former chairman in the Department of Radiation Oncology. Gaspar suggested that Penafiel undergo stereotactic radiosurgery, non-surgical radiation therapy which could precisely target the two small asymptomatic meningiomas with fewer high-dose treatments than traditional therapy.

“It was very frightening to her,” Gaspar recalls. “I had to reassure her.”

It took only about a week to recover from the stereotactic radiosurgery. Penafiel returned to her position at the CU Cancer Center, but not before Gaspar asked her what would prove to be a pivotal question. What kind of birth control was she on? Penafiel told her that she used a quarterly contraceptive injection of progesterone. 

Recurrence: A great memory and a gut feeling

In December 2016, Penafiel was looking ahead to 2017. One daughter was graduating from college, she had a trip planned with both her daughters and she was exceptionally busy in her job as the CU Cancer Center Education and Program Manager. She was preparing for “Learn About Cancer Day” for 120 high school students, and managing the Cancer Research Summer Fellowship Program which brings in 40 college undergraduates from all over the U.S. to perform cancer research with CU’s top cancer physicians and researchers.

Then, on Christmas Eve, the phone rang. Lillehei was calling to say that her most recent MRI showed a new nodule at the site of the original tumor behind her left eye.

“He told me that it needed to be dealt with surgically because of the location,” Penafiel said. “It was urgent, and very tough to receive the news about a fourth meningioma.”

Lillehei planned to present the case to the January meeting of the Skull Base Tumor Board. Then, in what would prove to be a prescient move, Penafiel contacted Gaspar to ask if she would attend the board meeting. Gaspar had a gut feeling and a great memory. She asked Penafiel if she was still using the same kind of birth control. Penafiel said yes. With just a hunch, Gaspar dug deeper. She did some literature searches, with a sneaking suspicion the birth control was connected to recurring meningiomas.

“As luck would have it, I was getting together with Dr. Ryan Ormond to talk about recent research,” Gaspar said. “So I asked him if he advises people with recurring meningiomas to steer clear of progesterone, or am I the only one? And he said to me, ‘That’s so weird you should ask me about that.’”

Ormond, who is an assistant professor and director of the CU School of Medicine Brain Tumor Program, told Gaspar that he was researching the association between hormones and recurrent meningiomas. Although the research was not yet published, initial results showed that people on progesterone had a higher rate of meningioma recurrence compared to patients not on the hormone. That information was, Gaspar said, “good enough for me.” She called Penafiel to say that new research supported her hunch and advised her to change her method of birth control—immediately.

The future:  “I  am eternally grateful”

When the tumor board convened, the game plan for Penafiel changed dramatically.

“It certainly changed our mind from going in surgically,” Lillehei said.

Instead, Penafiel started a mild oral chemotherapy designed to attack the meningioma. She will not spend months recovering from surgery and radiation—all because of a conversation between two physicians that Gaspar says is indicative of the collegiality at CU Anschutz which leads to better outcomes and happier patients.

“A lot of things happen just because we talk to each other in informal ways,” Gaspar said. “We learn from each other.”

Lillehei praises Penafiel for her willingness to advocate for herself. “She’s been a trooper,” he said. “She knows what she is up against but she has a tremendous attitude. And after everything she has been through, her vision is 20-20!”

Penafiel is willing to talk about her decade-long care at the CU Cancer Center because she feels she was never alone in the journey. She calls herself a “brain tumor survivor,” and says she is fortunate to have her family and her physicians. “I don’t feel like I am just a case here,” she said. “I am a person. I know my doctors really care. And I am eternally grateful.”

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