Cydra Vaux took up sculpting relatively late, in her 30s, using a strong feminist viewpoint. After a diagnosis of breast cancer, a mastectomy, remission and a finding in her 40s that the cancer had returned and spread to her liver, the indefatigable artist faced her terminal illness head-on.
Ms. Vaux, a free spirit known for her loving nature, also became known and exhibited for her sculptures depicting the loss of a breast, her interaction with skeletal figures representing death and other evocative works.
The Shady Side Academy Junior School art teacher was not shy about her grim prognosis, freely letting her baldness show during chemotherapy, but she also maintained a sunny disposition that made others enjoy being around her. Ms. Vaux's playful humor abounded at school, church, art classes and elsewhere.
"She just lit up any place she was in, an incredibly bright spirit," said Beth Matway of Squirrel Hill, who became a friend when the two women, their spouses and children helped start the Family Choir of First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh in 2002.
Ms. Vaux, first diagnosed with cancer in 2001, died Saturday in her Squirrel Hill home at age 51. After managing with successful treatment for many of the past 12 years, including after the finding in December 2009 that the cancer had returned and spread, her health became progressively worse in recent months.
She spent most of her childhood in Murrysville and graduated from Franklin Regional High School and Seton Hill University, where she was a theater major. She worked in office jobs in the Washington, D.C., area in her 20s before obtaining certification from Seton Hill as an art teacher in the mid-1990s.
She taught most of the years since, including with Shady Side Academy elementary school students since 2000, while increasingly nourishing her own interest in art.
Lawrenceville sculptor Duncan MacDiarmid, who became a friend while teaching Ms. Vaux at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, said she brought thoughtful, inspired concepts to all of her work. Prolific as ever while her disease progressed, she continued to create dozens of pieces, many of which fill the hallways and rooms of her home, where she had a kiln in the basement and a studio next to the backyard.
Much of her work is illustrated at her website, www.womansculpture.com, and is highlighted in a Brooklyn Museum digital archive dedicated to feminist artists. Ms. Vaux's sculptures have also been shown at the American Jewish Museum, Three Rivers Arts Festival, Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and numerous galleries in Pittsburgh.
"They're very rich narratives," Mr. MacDiarmid said of the sculptures, many of which are influenced by the art of India. "When she was diagnosed with cancer, her work slowly moved toward self-expression about how she was coping with the process of being ill. It became a personal narrative that still had a lot of historical references to the view of females over history."
On her website, Ms. Vaux describes her personal and artistic journey in text accompanying her work, "Self Portrait with Mirror Image of Death," which depicts her bumping heads with a skeletal figure.
"I face death head on," she wrote, "not because I want to, or from some heroic stance, but because I have not been given a choice. Yet, I still strive, for my own sanity, to meet death on my own terms. If I look it in the eye, can I make peace with it? I have stopped running -- and there is a bit of freedom in that."
Ms. Vaux's work will be exhibited Oct. 2-27 at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art.
She is survived by her husband, Charles Bonner; a son, Cavan; her mother, Verna Robinson of Penn Hills; her father, Walter Vaux of Port Townsend, Wash.; and a brother, Gregson Vaux of Greenfield.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Aug. 3 at First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh, 605 Morewood Ave., Shadyside. Arrangements are by John A. Freyvogel Sons Inc.
Gary Rotstein: email@example.com or 412-263-1255.