Drawing from Life, Painting to Live


They didn’t think he’d make it. At least, not initially.

Picture courtesy of Noozhawk

But, when Michael Orchowski found himself painting pictures of Santa Barbara in the summer of 2011, his story hit the papers as he became recognized as one of the few survivors of the fastest growing and most resistant brain tumor in the books.

​While he was living in Texas as a biomedical engineer, Mr. Orchowski was diagnosed with this brain tumor, commonly referred to as Glioblastoma multiforme. He survived a craniotomy, radiation, and Temodar; nonetheless, the doctors said he wouldn’t last more than six to nine months.

​Not long afterward, Mr. Orchowski and his wife Doedy retired and resigned from their jobs and moved to Santa Barbara.

Not for him to die,” said Mrs. Orchowski, “but for us to live those last six to nine months.”

One of his only hopes rested in a statistic demonstrating that 3% of all male patients in Mr. Orchowski’s age group with that particular brain tumor would live five more years, cancer free.
“Michael and I looked at each other and thought, and said to each other, somebody has to be in that three percent – why can’t we? And he promised me that he would do everything in his power to stay alive and I promised him that I would do everything in my power to be by his side and help him through this. And we both held up to our end of the bargain,” said Mrs. Orchowski.

Upon their move to Santa Barbara, Mr. Orchowski became a patient at the Cancer Center of Santa Barbara and joined an art class that took place every Monday.

But when he picked up a paintbrush for the first time, he used his left hand because the tumor had paralyzed his right arm. Despite the obstacles he was presented with – learning to gain control over his non-dominant arm, figuring out how to paint because he had never tried to before, and above all, battling one of the most aggressive malignant brain tumors known to mankind – Mr. Orchowski soon began to create a collection of his own paintings.

Painting towards grace
"Painting Towards Grace" Picture courtesy of the Orchowski family


“He just let his mind take him on what he wanted to do, or where he was at the time, or a pleasant memory,” said Mrs. Orchowski.

And then, without warning, he was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, which his family discovered to be even worse than the brain tumor.
Mr. Orchowski watched as his number of medical contacts grew and his whole life was put on hold so he could attend to this disease. But even as the ALS took away all motion in his right leg, followed by his left leg, then his left arm – his painting arm – Mr. Orchowski didn’t give up on his dreams and pursued his wish to put his paintings on display in a public gallery.

He wanted to be more than just a cancer survivor

On December 1, the Dream Foundation, 33 Jewels, and Kim Keiler helped make Mr. Orchowski’s wish come true by setting up his dream gallery for all to see.

Before he knew it, Mr. Orchowski’s Painting Toward Grace gallery was turning into a reality. But, just as quickly, his ALS took a turn for the worse. Just three days before opening night, Michael Orchowski passed away at the Hospice Riviera in Santa Barbara.
In honor of his life – a life marked by an investment in an unlikely dream, confidence in the power of faith, perseverance against all odds, and peace in the face of chaos – 814 State St. was filled to the brim with supportive members of Santa Barbara’s community.

What set Mr. Orchowski apart from other cancer patients was not his relentless determination to prevent the ALS from turning him into a weaker person, but rather his unending desire to use his diagnosis as a source of strength. He didn’t just want to survive, he wanted to live – not for the sake of popularity or monetary wealth, but just for the sake of life. And in the end, he touched the lives of people across the country, many of whom had never even met him, all because he dared to pursue a dream and to stand by it even when the rest of the world seemed to be working against him.

“He wanted to be more than just a cancer survivor,” said Mrs. Orchowski. “He wanted to be an example of how no matter what cards you were dealt, life was still precious and meaningful, and he didn’t want to waste a minute.”