HER-2: an ongoing series
When I was young, I took art lessons after school and during summer vacation at a local studio near my house. As I grew older, I noticed my artwork became more rigid. I could draw what was in front of me — a still life, a person’s body. But, when it came to going beyond mimesis, to making “artistic” or creative choices, especially about the background, I often froze. I was afraid of the blank page, afraid of the freedom it signified, and afraid of screwing up the drawing I had so carefully made.
I increasingly curtailed that particular creative impulse, veering away from doing art to studying it. Studying was clearly safer..as is teaching. Even now, I retain a love of art, and though my teaching primarily revolves around media and popular culture, I take any opportunity to bring other art forms into the conversation.
Given the relationship I’ve had with art over the years, it may not be surprising that my mind has drifted in this direction even in the most unlikely circumstances — daily radiation therapy. But this is no accidental mind drift. I am prompted. As I lay in my requisite radiation position, I am forced to gaze at a painting hanging on the wall of the treatment room. It’s one of those benign, safe for public consumption paintings — neither great, nor grating. Impressionist-style flowers.
I suppose it’s meant to be calming and soothing, and remind the inert patient of the natural world that awaits beyond the 1-foot deep protective door, beyond the technological behemoth that slowly revolves around my body, beyond the invisible radiation beams designed to kill cells — the good and the bad.
By the end of September, I will have had a total of 33 radiation treatments — every day except weekends. And, like all the other cancer tests and treatments I have endured, radiation has its dehumanizing side.
Upon arriving at the treatment center and putting on a hospital gown, I am asked to lay face up on a blue piece of foam that has been molded to my body. The mold ensures that I remain in the same exact position for each treatment. Mine is one of several impersonal molds hanging from a clothes rack with name tags.
I am told not to move my own body. It will be moved for me by the radiation therapists — Mike and Vince. They take my left arm out of its sleeve, and expose my breast. That arm is then curled around my head, which is turned to face right, gazing at the floral painting. I am pushed and pulled, my core and limbs manipulated and adjusted. Then, retreating to a safe room, the therapists instruct me via speaker system, imposing on my patterns of inhaling and exhaling: “take a breath in…hold your breath… breathe…” And repeat. Eight to ten times each visit, for a total of 15–20 minutes.
I am a mannequin.
I am an odalisque.
I am Rose posing for Jack on the Titanic (minus the valuable necklace…and the sexual tension).
I am a Cindy Sherman untitled film still.
As I contemplate my requisite position and immobility, I am reminded of my gender and media class (which I happen to be teaching this fall) — particularly discussion and commentaries on female objectification as well as theories and revisionist accounts of the so-called “male gaze.”
More than once, cancer has made me into a still life and an object. Not an object of the “male gaze,” per se. Rather, the object of a medical gaze, subject to medical and technological intrusion and penetration. It’s a parallel type of objectification, and in my case, underscored by situating me in an historic and conventional and passive (female) pose.
With one or two exceptions.
I have my senses, and I can still move my mouth, a privilege that I somewhat desperately exercise (even flaunt). I chat with Mike and Vince as they position me. We talk weekend plans, lunch spots near the treatment center, favorite beverages (neither of them drink coffee), and funny radiation stories (they had to read a cookbook to one patient so he wouldn’t fall asleep during treatment). I also point out the surely ironic, and possibly inappropriate song on the playlist that was piped into the radiation room my first day — the Commodores’ funk hit “Brick House.” (You seriously can’t make this stuff up).
Once they take their leave, I stare at the painting.
Each day, my eyes wander to different parts of the canvas. A crack (or is it a stem?) in the upper left corner. The spectrum of greens in the background, from the muddled and textured to the opaque. The different colors, shapes, and sizes of the flowers.
I’m reminded of a French professor I had in college, Ilse Lipschutz, who also happened to be an art historian. She used to tell us that the best way to go to the Louvre (or any museum) was to look at one painting per visit. That way, you really spend time with the artwork, get to know it, and are not overwhelmed or distracted by the enormity of the museum’s collection. It’s a lofty goal, and one reserved perhaps for true art lovers. Or, in my case, radiation patients.
Despite my immobility, I am seeing and thinking and remembering and getting lost in this simple, but now meaningful, floral still life.
Apparently, I am drawn to art in other places too — like the waiting area of the radiation clinic. Mixed among the usual doctor’s office magazine fare, I find something unusual that speaks to the “here and now” of my experience: a book called Rad Art — A Journey Through Radiation Treatment. The author, Sally Loughridge, is an artist, clinical psychologist and former cancer patient, who mapped her 33 radiation treatments through daily five-by-seven inch oil paintings. Laid out like a children’s picture book, Loughridge includes a short description of the day’s emotional experience alongside each painting.
On Day 13, her piece “Loop de Loop” captures a familiar tension: “Every treatment is reassuringly the same — efficient and precise. But I am on an emotional roller coaster about the radiation process and, on a more basic level, about the cancer. Did the surgery remove all of the cancerous cells, or do I still have cancer? Not knowing is very hard. Feeling out of control is humbling and scary.”
On Day 18, I realize she and I are on the same schedule, when she writes, “I had no idea how bothersome the itching would become, like mosquito bites many times over.”
Loughridge shares a trajectory that is inconsistent. She acknowledges the ebbs and flows in her emotions, but overall moves from a state of confusion, despair and fear to one of hope that culminates in the last painting, entitled “Good Morning.”
Back in early June, when I was in between my last two chemotherapy treatments, I rode that trajectory in a single day. I participated in a gestural art workshop run by a friend and artist, Claudia Concha Perea. I arrived at the workshop fatigued and overwhelmed by my chemo side effects. I hoped that the workshop would turn me around, but I was also pragmatic, even pessimistic, going in with fairly low expectations.
Instead, I found painting immensely therapeutic. Claudia instructed me to close my eyes, to use my non-dominant hand, to let loose — no fears, no inhibitions. For someone afraid of the empty canvas, this was a tall order. In the span of 2–3 hours, however, I moved from a fairly closed, static and dark palette to a more open, fluid and warm one.
I used wide brushes designed for house painting.
I used pastels over the paint.
I used multiple brushes and tools at a time.
I threw paint onto the canvas.
I scratched it.
I pummeled it with my fists.
I was emotional, aggressive, even angry and reactive.
“Fuck you, cancer. Fuck you.”
The experience was raw and cleansing. And, when I was done, I felt lighter, physically and mentally. It sounds cliché — even to me — to say I tapped into my “inner child,” but looking back at my own trajectory with art-making, maybe I did.
The final product is now framed and hangs in our living room. A gift from my husband, who saw and appreciated its import. A symbol of healing, rejuvenation, and movement through this fucked up year.