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Nudes and Breast Cancer: Personal Documentary and Art


Sometimes breast cancer invites us to look closely at our own bodies the way we might look at famous nudes. Creating visual art can be therapeutic, whether it involves photography or digital. Watercolors, sketches and collages could be empowering, too.

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I found a book entitled, "Her Soul Beneath the Bone: Women's Poetry on Breast Cancer." Edited by Leatrice Lifshitz, it includes Deena Metzger's "I am no longer afraid," along with a photograph by Hella Hamid of Metzger with a tree tattoo across her scar. This photograph helped me to see how the visual arts can empower women dealing with a disfiguring disease.

Art, including poetry and the visual arts, helped me through my mother's diagnosis. While writing poetry is all well and good, and what I tend to focus on, art with provocative poses like Metzger's drew me into exploring the nude. My mother's experience with cancer thus inspired my first attempt to photograph my own naked breasts. While I no longer have those images that I took with a polaroid camera, I do have the "art" I created with them: digitally manipulated images that turned breasts into landscapes like deserts or mountains.

Of course, even with my body hidden in images printed with a computer at home on photographic paper, they have never been displayed in an art show. Only one ended up in the house of a poet friend, now deceased, whose "landscape" has likely been tossed into a landfill. The other day, I got my images out and studied them. It is intriguing to look at them now to mine them for poetic inspiration and to ponder why the loss of my mother's breast affected me so.

I never photographed my mother nude. I did witness a photograph a man shared of his elderly mother with her breast cancer scar at an art show for amateur photographers. It was an appropriately startling portrait in a room of the usual scenes, in part because it felt more realistic than artistic. Seeing realistic nudes, not just nudes that fit some ideal, is healthy for society.

When David Jay began soliciting participants for his Scar Project, photographing young survivors in stylized nude poses, I emailed to suggest that he not exclude older women. That was before I understood fully the purpose of his project, which evolved into an important one for many reasons. Young breast cancer survivors deserve the attention that this project brought to the cancer community.

If Jay had set up a project for older survivors, would I have participated? It is hard to say. The week before my right breast was excised, I will say, I went into the bathroom with a digital camera. After the surgery, I took more photographs of my revised body. These images are not as arty as the old ones I manipulated from polaroid images. That may be because they appear a little too realistic with raw imagery and sad eyes. But they have helped me to heal.

Transforming one photograph into art, I also created a kaleidoscopic image from the nipple of the breast that is no more. I posted this image briefly on Facebook the week after my mastectomy with the title "Pale Pink Mandala" and a reflection in my cancer album about why I was not seeking reconstruction. Transforming the nipple into a mandala gave me a chance to use the creative process to make sense of surgery.

Sometimes taking photographs of one's body before and after a mastectomy, even if our form of "art" does not become internationally famous the way Deena Metzger's image did, can help with coping. While my images are nowhere near as arty as David Jay's images of young women with breast cancer, or any famous art pieces, the process of creating them was emotionally useful. Could they help others? It would be interesting for a curator to put together an art show of candid poses created by breast cancer survivors.

Learn more:

Deena Metzger http://deenametzger.net/

The Scar Project http://www.thescarproject.org/

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