THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Chicago Art Department, January 10–31, 2020
by Michel Ségard
When I saw the announcement for “Artoma: The Art of Cancer” on The Visualist, I was both intrigued and suspicious. As a person who has been battling cancer for four years, I was curious how the experience had affected these artists’ work , but as a critic I was skeptical—suspicious that this exhibition might be just another therapeutic exercise to help the participants personally cope with their fate. As worthwhile as such a therapeutic pursuit might be, not all image making or crafting is art. Often it is just therapy. I am glad to report that my suspicions were largely unfounded. Yes, there was a small amount of the therapeutic element, but the main focus was on how these artists used their art to communicate to the world how the experience of battling cancer affects one’s psyche and one’s life. Each of these artists has been affected in a different way, and their work in this show reflects those differences.
Let us start with fiber artist Barbara Youngquist, a 24 year survivor of ovarian cancer. At the age of eight, she had been taught to knit by her grandmother. Later, during a trip to Ireland, she became attracted to the fiber artistry of that nation’s handspun cabled sweaters. She eventually learned to weave on a continuous loop tri-loom, making pieces of clothing to donate to charitable organizations. Her work embodies intricate patterns and subtle colors to make very wearable garments. In this respect, she, more than any other in the group, follows a craft tradition that allows functional items to have a strong aesthetic quality.
She depended on her interest in knitting to serve as a distraction during her chemotherapy.* And it was the ability to create beautiful objects that transcended their therapeutic value even during the difficult process of chemotherapy that helped keep her going and that has informed her art ever since—a kind of artistic power of positive thinking.
Barbara Youngquist: a blouse and a shawl. Photos by Michel Ségard.
* I am very familiar with this strategy. I took on the leadership of the New Art Examiner as a distraction during the initial treatment of my prostate cancer, which consisted of 45 session of radiation therapy along with a year of chemotherapy. I have recently undergone an additional 25 sessions of radiation therapy to treat two metastases and will be on chemo for another two years. Being the New Art Examiner’s editor in chief definitely helps me keep my sanity and sense of worth to my community.
Eileen Powers has a similarly positive attitude toward the effect of her cancer. She was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2018. After enduring months of fear, constant pain, and misdirection, she finally found a medical solution. She described this period as a strange, yet oddly positive time. As a result of chemotherapy, she lost all of her hair, which resulted in the loss of her sense of self, especially her physical identity.
Out of that came her project “Can You Make Hair For Me?” She has asked people to create hair for her out of any material they choose. As a photographer she then created a series of self-portraits depicting her with the hair made by various people from an assortment of materials: ribbons, wood shavings, lettuce, red cabbage, feathers, curly noodles, etc. As she states on her project website, canyoumakehairforme.com , “The goal is to show that loss is real, but our ingenuity in dealing with loss is what makes us stronger, more compassionate humans.” She has pursued this project with an extraordinary sense of humor and created quite an uplifting series of images. In doing so, I feel that she has indeed regained her identity, particularly as an artist.
Eileen Powers: two pieces from the "Can You Make Hair For Me?" series. Photos by Michel Ségard.
Ceramist Richard Zeid also lost his hair during six rounds of chemotherapy while being treated for lymphoma. But he incorporated the fallen hair into his work, using the hair like a local glaze to impart a pattern to his otherwise unglazed vessels. For this show, these vessels were affixed to three outlines of a male body crafted from plywood sheets and mounted like tables. So the hair was “returned” to its rightful place. This symbolism dovetails with his passionate pursuit of the perfection of forms—the perfection achieved by wholeness.
Yet there is another possible interpretation of these vessels. They remind me of cremation urns. The question is: do they symbolically contain the ashes of the cancer and, therefore, the “passing” of the disease, or are they the metaphorical expression of a personal loss, a foreshadowing of the inevitable—or both?
Richard Zeid: two of the three "torso tables" with ceramic pots attached. Photos by Michel Ségard.
Fortunately for Power and Zeid, hair grows back after chemo. Michael Gallagher was not so fortunate. At 52, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent a prostatectomy. Although this cured his cancer, he was left with the sense of profound permanent loss. When thinking about permanent losses that impact your identity, one thinks of breast cancer and mastectomies, which make women feel less than whole both individually and sexually. The same dynamic happens with men and prostatectomies. They are left feeling less like a man and have to struggle to adapt to limited sexual function that can sometimes be severe.
Gallagher expressed his sense of loss via an installation of 52 large, walnut-shaped plaster sculptures, one for each year of his life, hung in four rows of 13 on a black field. (The choice of walnuts was because the prostate is often described as about the size of a walnut.) This abstract arrangement indirectly calls to mind Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial where confronting the list of names of those who died brings to focus the sense of loss. In Gallagher’s piece, the loss becomes palpable with the repetition of the walnut shape. Gallagher’s is the most cathartic and direct expression in the show. With the walnut forms reduced almost to the point of abstraction, the work conceptually addresses the permanent damage caused by cancer, both physically and emotionally.
Michael Gallagher: wall installation of 52 plaster walnut shapes. Photo by Michel Ségard.
Nancy VanKanegan has a different outlook on the effects of her breast cancer. She has undergone surgery, chemotherapy and radiation to combat her cancer. In her words, “I’ve come to see my breast cancer treatment as a ‘gardening and pruning’ of the physical self through the ‘miracles’ of science.” Science gave her the inspiration for the series of ceramic plates she created that expressed her cancer experience. Each plate is based on a scan of her tumor or lymph nodes. In each bas relief plate, the pattern and texture of the cancer is contrasted with that of the normal tissue surrounding it. The ability to recognize differences in patterns is one of oncology’s fundamental tools for localizing the site of a cancer and determining the efficacy of a given therapy. VanKanegan turns this skill into a series of works of art, giving credence to the notion that the mental processes used in art and science are actually quite similar. There is the added psychological benefit of visualizing a disease to help stimulate the body’s immune response to fight it.
VanKanegan’s works then serve multiple purposes. They act as an affirmation of the will for survival; they show us the similarities between art and science and how one can influence the other; and they help visualize the disease to mobilize the body’s immune response.
Nancy VanKanegan: two ceramic plaques based on tumor biopsy slides. Photos by Michel Ségard.
None of these artists indulged in maudlin expressions of victimization. They all faced the reality of their situation and expressed it in clear artistic language, giving the viewer some understanding of the dynamics of what they had gone through and the subsequent consequences. The informative nature of this show comes as no surprise, given that three of the five (Gallagher, VanKanegan, and Zeid) are also educators. And there is the liberating aspect of “coming out” with your disease and relieving yourself of the burden of keeping it a secret and pretending that everything is okay when it isn’t.
This was a substantive exhibition that, in spite of its serious initial content, turned out to be uplifting because of the artistic and educational skill of these artists. It shows that even when art is used as a therapeutic tool, it can also embrace serious aesthetic goals and speak to us about the larger issues of life. There are plans to do additional exhibitions of this kind in the future; I hope they come to pass.
Michel Ségard is the Editor in Chief of the New Art Examiner and a former adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is also the author of numerous exhibition catalog essays.
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