Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Wilderness Bond and The Incredible Egg

By Kelle Schillaci

MARCH 1, 1999: 

If you've been spared the threat of breast cancer, be it discovered in yourself or a loved one, you have beaten incredible odds. For those who have been told in hushed voices by apologetic doctors that a tumor is malignant, for those whose mother, sister, aunt or friend has been diagnosed with the incurable disease and even for those to whom the idea is unfathomable, this book is an inspiring, courageous and tearful artistic journey through what it means to be diagnosed, treated and to live again after breast cancer strikes.

Art.Rage.Us. began with San Francisco resident and founder of the Breast Cancer Fund, Andrea Martin. The Breast Cancer Fund, along with the American Cancer Society and the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, transformed vision into reality, creating an extensive art exhibit that eventually became this book collection, with proceeds to fund breast cancer research and the provision of vital service programs to underserved women. With a brief introduction by actress and breast cancer survivor Jill Eikenberry, the book quickly aims for the heart, that vital organ hidden just behind the breast.

The works of 56 artists and 21 writers are divided into three distinct phases of the disease: Change, chronicling the anguish and fear of initial diagnosis; Journey, the path of treatment as a body succumbs to the physical displacements of chemotherapy and radiation; and finally, there's the Healing. Each section has its share of works that are hard to look at, words that are difficult to read. The artist or writer easily slips into the role of your mother, your lover, yourself.

In some cases, the message is blatant. It is the expression of agony on the recently diagnosed; the breastless figures or photographs, torsos maimed and disfigured; the collage of get-well wishes--"Thinking of you" or "Now you are a true Amazon ..." In other cases, the muse is more oblique, and humor presents itself as its own defensive weapon against despair. "Get away from it all at Club Carcinoma," advertises one work, created by members of the Movement/Arts group for breast cancer.

These women take the recovery practice of "visualization" to new artistic levels: savage depictions of splicing surgeons or breasts being devoured by wolves; tiny "helper-people" moving around beneath the breast tissue, repairing from within. Still others became obsessed by charting their reconstructive course in Polaroid photos.

In a particularly powerful photographic punch, there are seven friends and one of their young daughters depicted bare to their waistlines. One of the eight, like one out of every eight women, is cancer-striken, post-op and breastless. In another, the artist transposes her own scarred self-portraits over photos of a bay-area power plant in Hunter's Point. The plant's constant spewing of polycylic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) has been invariably linked to breast cancer in young female rats.

In some cases, the lack of "cause" becomes the focus: early misdiagnosis, cigarettes smoked years ago, bad karma, bad genes or, as one woman was told, cancer is the physical manifestation of "suppressed depression." For the most part, these women discard this destructive nonsense, concentrating less on the cause than on the healing.

The Healing section never really confines itself to the final third of the book. In fact, in most cases, art becomes catharsis: Breastlessness becomes beautiful, practical, life-saving, and scars become the symbol of remission.

A few of the pieces are by the loved ones on the opposite end of the operating table. Theirs is the pain I can relate to, but the fear, I imagine, is universally felt by every woman who has loved, admonished or even ignored her own breasts. Many of the artists submitted what I call "breast memories"--first bra, first lover's caress, first time nursing. They compare post-mastectomy to prepubescence, but for the most part, they speak lovingly about the now-missing portion of their anatomy that had never truly meant them harm, but whose removal, in the end, saved their lives.

The artwork itself is loud in places, subdued in others, cursing, soft-spoken, brash and understated. It is ugliness and it is sheer beauty. It is as diverse as the population struck with the disease.(Chronicle Books, paper, $24.95)

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