ART

Healing the broken body

A show is steeped in the fears and hopes of breast-cancer survivors

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER February 20 1995
ART

Healing the broken body

A show is steeped in the fears and hopes of breast-cancer survivors

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER February 20 1995

Healing the broken body

ART

A show is steeped in the fears and hopes of breast-cancer survivors

SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER

Nobody expected Rose Mary Gadler to last this long. In October, 1992, the Montreal woman learned that she had breast cancer so advanced that it had permeated her lungs. “They told me I had six months to a year to live,” says 42-year-old Gadler, who remembers standing alone on the sidewalk outside the hospital, frozen in shock.

“I didn’t know what to do or where to go.”

Soon after, the single Gadler left her job as a museum exhibit assistant and focused on fighting for her life. Then, last October, she had the opportunity to share the story of her struggle with Montreal artist Catherine Widgery. Inspired by Gadler’s courage,

Widgery created a sculpture that expresses the emotional upheaval of breast cancer.

“What she experienced became very physical and real to me,” says Widgery. “That made it very poignant.”

Widgery and Gadler—artist and survivor— are participants in an innovative national art project. Gadler is one of 100 Canadian women with breast cancer who confided the intimate physical and emotional details of their suffering to 24 of the country’s top female artists, none of whom actually had the disease. They gathered last year in small groups, in every province, in homes, studios and hotel rooms. Then, steeped in the pain, fears and hopes of the survivors, the artists—including such renowned painters as Mary Pratt of Newfoundland and Winnipeg’s Wanda Koop—returned to their studios to create art that would reflect that experience. The result is an exhibition called Survivors, In Search of a Voice: The Art of Courage, which opens at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto this week, and then travels to Halifax, Calgary, Winnipeg, Regina and Vancouver over the next two years.

Like the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which has been touring the United States since 1987, Survivors is a collective effort that was conceived to draw attention to a devastating illness. The idea of linking high art with the hard reality of breast cancer originated with Toronto patron Joan Chalmers and her partner, Barbra Amesbury. They were determined to help fight the disease, which strikes one in nine Canadian women—and which had killed several of their friends. “We wanted to create a powerful symbol of the breast-cancer movement,” says Amesbury, “one that women could own.” The $500,000 show, financed by Chalmers’s Woodlawn Arts Foundation, will be made available to major galleries across the country for free, on the understanding that cancer societies and activist groups in each province could use it to raise funds and awareness of the disease. ‘We put art where we believe it should be—on the cutting edge of social change,” says Amesbury. “What better weapon for social change than art?”

Survivors covers the spectrum of contemporary art, from painting and sculpture to traditional crafts and avant-garde minimalism. There is a wide range, too, in the artists’ response to the subject of breast cancer. The survivors’ feelings of fear and anger emerge in some of the works. Death hovers in the subtle, stylized coffins that dominate a large quilt by Montreal visual artist Barbara Todd. And Toronto photographer Barbara Cole’s three self-portraits, in

which she acts out the suffering of a breast-cancer victim, are an embodiment of anguish. But most of the pieces convey a heartening sense of survival and even triumph. In her poignant sculpture, Uxbridge, Ont., artist Jane Buckles created a woman who is entranced by the beauty of a butterfly, and by her own new reverence for life. Other works, such as Toronto artist Colette Whiten’s beaded banner, which shouts “There, there, there” in a fierce black and red script, mock the medical community’s patronizing attitude towards breast-cancer patients. And Vancouver artist Gathie Falk’s beautiful canvas Red Apples—showing rows of apples sliced into successively smaller pieces—gently hints at the pain of surgery and the strength required to survive it.

Chalmers and Amesbury, both experienced collectors, handpicked the artists represented in Survivors after consulting respected authorities in the art community. They say that one prominent artist declined the commission, arguing that creating a work on breast cancer was “not a great career move.” But 24 women did accept the challenge offered by the Woodlawn Arts Foundation. “They were given total artistic freedom,” says Amesbury. ‘Their only obligation was to give voice to what they heard.” Convinced that “unless you have had breast cancer, you really don’t know anything about it,” Amesbury explains that she and Chalmers arranged for the artists to meet with survivors of all ages, at all stages of the disease.

Many of the artists were deeply affected by their contact with the survivors. Koop, 42, could not work for two weeks after hearing firsthand about the suffering of women with breast cancer. “I was devastated by their stories,” says the internationally renowned painter. “As a woman, you also feel the possibility you’re next.” She added that because much of her work deals with the human condition, the assignment was “not a huge stretch artistically.” But Koop chose a new medium for Survivors. She printed a series of video stills onto a large banner to create Survivors Poem. Koop’s stark, black-and-white images—of subjects ranging from women’s faces to parched earth—have a classic, timeless quality and document what she calls “our shared journey” through breast cancer,

and “how we have to deal with whatever

comes our way.”

Edmonton artist Jane Ash Poitras, who has a Cree and Chipewyan background, views her participation in Survivors as a natural extension of her art and her native culture. “From time immemorial,” says Poitras, 43, “shamans were artists.” The sick and troubled, she explains, would relate their dreams to shaman healers, who would then paint the visions, in a process that would lead to a cure. “I heard the visions of the women with breast cancer” says Poitras about her role in Survivors, “and interpreted them so the community, Canada, can learn from it and break down the fear.” Poitras’s tombstone-shaped collage hits squarely at death, listing the names of 12 women who have died of breast cancer, and celebrates hope, showing photos of survivors. The back of her free-standing piece is a blackboard equipped with chalk. Convinced that art has the power to heal, Poitras wants survivors to write their names on her work “to give testimony to their own stories.”

Survivors led some artists to change the

way they work. “It was very unusual,” says Widgery, 42. “We were given such a specific topic, we did live research with people and we entered into a relationship with them.” She says she frequently discussed her work with Gadler, who provided feedback and information about breast cancer. “The personal contact was so inspiring,” says Widgery, whose avant-garde sculpture is composed of 24 breast-shaped bottles containing intriguing organic forms. The work, on close inspection, has ominous undertones: the bottles have the clinical feel of test tubes, and their contents evoke cancerous growths. In creating this sculpture, Widgery paid more attention to potential viewers than she has for any of her other works. “I very much felt this piece needed to be accessible to a broader audience,” says Widgery, “and at the same time, I wanted it to be appreciated in the avant-garde art community.” Gadler, now bedridden with pain and reduced to 85 pounds, has not yet viewed the art that she inspired, but she was determined to attend the opening of the exhibit on Feb. 15. Survivors is “my voice, my story,” says Gadler. “It carries the message of hope that we will fight to the end if need be, and that one day women will not die of breast cancer.” □