“They wanted to cut off my right breast. On the right side of my torso I painted an archway over my breast. The XXX’s represent the scarring… Breast cancer is like a long journey. It awakened an appreciation for every day. Every day is a gift.
— Carol Marsland, Princeton
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000 and completed treatment the same year. This year, I was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer.” The turban [on her torso is] a “chemo” turban, worn when a cancer patient loses her hair. “I have shown it with no face because when I wore a turban, I felt that what people saw was the cancer, not the person… The left breast cloud symbolizes beautiful sunny days. The right cloud threatens the sunny days. There is a battle going on. Some of my weapons of battle are shown on the back of the torso.”
– Marjie Eisenbeg,
“I used catalogues to recycle images and words to decoupage my torso. Watches and clocks tell you I am very conscious of time now that I am living with metastacized breast cancer. Black paint indicates where the cancer has spread..I chose to drape and interweave braided pink ribbon to show the support network created for and by breast cancer women. The braids are unfinished; neither is my living!”
— Mary Alice Quigley
“After the first treatment my hair started to fall out and I finally cut it very short. Then I shaved it all off. At the same time, my son who was 39, shaved his hair off and my granddaughter, 6 years old at the time, cut off 18 inches of her beautiful hair to give it to children with cancer…I was sick in between treatments, but my doctors and nurses were all so wonderful. I felt loved and cared for by my family and friends. I had only a small scar (thanks to my incredible surgeon). Therefore, I put a little white mark on my torso’s breast to remind myself I actually had a scar. If you should ever get cancer, keep a positive attitude and try not to look sick (having a good night’s sleep helps). If cancer should reoccur, I don’t know if I would go through it again. I am 74 years old.”
— Siri Willits, Princeton
These are just some of the moving artist statements from “Healing Through Creativity, A Breast Cancer Journey,” a one-evening event to celebrate the artistic outcome of a 10-week session offered by the Breast Cancer Resource Center of the YWCA Princeton. Carved and painted papier mache torsos, luminous collages, and thought-provoking “fear bowls” will be on display Friday, March 31, at Bristol-Myers Squibb, a fitting venue — BMS manufactures Tamoxifen, one of the leading drugs used in breast cancer treatment. The exhibit could easily be subtitled “Profiles in Courage.”
The artists — breast cancer patients and survivors — participated in “Healing Through Creativity,” led by artist Hope VanCleaf, former special events coordinator, fundraiser, and docent of the 2004 Writers’ Block, a collaborative project between writers and architects on a vacant lot in downtown Princeton. She currently serves as a guest artist at the Princeton University Art Museum, for the Saturday art talks program for children. VanCleaf proposed her program — designed to heal and transform breast cancer patients and survivors through new experiences in art — to BCRC last spring. Says VanCleaf: “My course could be a healing model for anything, but is particularly suited to women whose bodies and self image have been dramatically altered by this disease.” BCRC was enthusiastic from the start, instituting “Healing Through Creativity” in the fall of 2005. Next semester, the weekly sessions are being offered for both daytime and evening.
A fiber artist and jewelry designer, VanCleaf, who formerly worked as the assistant to the director of development at the YWCA, maintains that true art heals far beyond the physical. BCRC director Kara Stephenson agrees, marveling at “the power of these women’s work. Many demurred at the start, saying `I don’t have a creative bone in my body!’ That turned out to be anything but true.” VanCleaf’s program is a transformative experience in which breast cancer patients and survivors become artists.
Stephenson says: “Hope gives them permission to use art in new ways. In the classes they are urged to express themselves and their reactions to the disease, to experience and demonstrate new control over their lives. It’s just so important [for them] to maintain quality of life.”
In January, 2005, Stephenson became director of BCRC in January, 2005, after three years as senior executive at Singapore’s Breast Cancer Foundation. In her former position, Stephenson established and managed Asia’s first dragon boat team for breast cancer survivors. She created the first support group for Malay-speaking women with breast cancer, as well as a program to train breast cancer survivors to serve as peer counselors.
VanCleaf says: “Fear was the first topic we dealt with in the hopes of visually capturing their initial reaction to the diagnosis of cancer.” The first project is making forms for “fear bowls” by molding papier mache onto a blown-up balloon. Once the mache hardened the balloons were punctured, leaving a rounded bowl shape for the artists to illustrate. “Most of the pieces went through a weekly metamorphosis,” says Van Cleaf. “For three weeks the pieces went through changes along with the artist. One of my students purchased the plastic eyes to complete her bowl — this project really, truly moved them. This project has changed my life and the women who partake in it as well.”
The second topic addresses body image, using collage as the medium. This leads to the final project, the torso.
I spent one afternoon with these remarkable artists in a room awash in feistiness and rare beauty, where resilience rules. Cross-pollination is the norm. One woman, who has been an artist for years, brings a small bottle of gold-flecked paint to another, who wanted to work on the inside of her torso. The name of medium, appropriately, was “Lumiere,” the French word for light. Before that class ended, eyes were alight with laughter and with tears.
These artists have circled the wagons — against a cold unfeeling world, and an even colder fate. The youngest was first diagnosed at 29. She has already endured and come through recurrence. No one interacted with her torso more forcefully than she. Norma Jean DeVico of Titusville had participated in session I, on the heels of back-to-back diagnoses of breast cancer and leukemia, as her father lay dying. DeVico will miss the March 31 event at Bristol-Myers Squibb; on March 15, she set out on a determined trek along the Appalachian Trail, toting her 40-pound pack, to turn those keen artist eyes on beauties and challenges from Georgia to Maine (www.pinktrail.org).
The other artists will be there in force, including one woman who had discovered recurrence just moments before the class I sat in on began. “I considered not coming,” she says, “but I have to be here. Because of these people!” Her voice trails off. Her chin lifts. “I’ll do what I have to do,” she says. “You know, they gave me three years, 10 years ago. No, I don’t want to face chemo anew.” She tosses red curls, curls strong lips: “It’s a trip, I tell you!”
There it is again, that sense of journey. Another participant, an eager cyclist, terms the treatment demanded by her own recent recurrence, “my new ride.” It’s no accident that the facilitator’s name is Hope.
Breast Cancer Art Event, Friday, March 31, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., Bristol-Myers Squibb, Route 206, Lawrenceville. A one evening only private event, “Healing Through Creativity: A Breast Cancer Journey,” an exhibition highlighting the works of 11 breast cancer patients and survivors. Presented by the Breast Cancer Resource center of the YWCA Princeton. NOTE: This event is open only to friends and families of the artists. For information call BCRC at 609-497-2100, extension 346.