When you're a person confronting head and neck cancer, you find yourself struggling to regain not only your health.
You fight to regain your personality.
Dr. Minn Yoon and Dr. Pamela Brett-MacLean formed a group called the 'see me, hear me, heal me' project for these cancer survivors to offer their stories of psychological grief, identity struggle and social stigmatization.
Through this group, these survivors have been working with an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Alberta and artists. They have been sharing their stories as a form of scientific examination but also to inform the artists to produce a new series of works.
This is FLUX, and the exhibit is now on display at dc3 Art Projects in downtown Edmonton. It was curated by Lianne McTavish but features the intermedia imagery of Brad Necyk, a man who is no stranger to medically based art. Last year, he was the artist in residence with Transplant Services at the U of A Hospital. To him, it was vitally important to have that other experience first in order to better approach this one.
"It made me feel like I could discuss really tough things, rather than sugarcoat it and give typical narratives about the heroic narrative that goes on with cancer," he said. "There's this other side, this really difficult side."
"What really caught me was … this thing can strip you of something so intimate as your voice, your face … these things that make up your identity."
He has two digitally manipulated varieties of work on display. There are static images of these people's faces, but they're blurred so you don't really see any of the details of their eyes, noses or mouths. That's contrasted with the video works where he made it seem like a person's face has become entirely disconnected with some parts missing entirely. Cheekbones and chins, eyebrow ridges and ears dance about without any rhyme or reason as they bounce about as if they were floating on jelly.
"What I'm thinking about here is this fragmentation of identity that goes on when you're diagnosed with something like this and when you go through treatments like this. It's tough."
How tough? Just ask Kimberly Flowers and Bernie Krewski. Flowers said that it had been a year since her surgery and six months since her last radiation treatment when she first started participating with 'see me, hear me, heal me.'
"I was still dealing with all of the physical repercussions and interestingly enough, I started realizing that I had some psychological and emotional trauma that I hadn't really dealt with yet because I was so focused on the physical, really just trying to survive at that point," Flowers said. "I was working with a counsellor … but some of the milestones in that healing happened through this process. This project means a lot."
At first glance, you might not suspect that she had tongue cancer surgery and that at one point she couldn't speak. The scars aren't immediately apparent. Krewski's open stoma in his neck might also slip your first greeting with him. It was the result of the surgery to remove the tumour on his larynx and also to give him his voice back. He can't speak unless he plugs the hole and his voice is hoarse and gravelly. It was only made possible by using ligaments from his left forearm. Part of his tongue was also removed and the radiation destroyed his teeth, but dental implants make it look like they never left.
"Having the good fortune of a very quick diagnosis (less than 24 hours from my first medical contact), I simply put on a set of blinders and prepared myself for what was to follow. That was one way of coping," he explained.
"Having to endure many different types of ongoing treatment, it's easy to get locked into a 'cancer box' and difficult to step out of it, simply trying to live an ordinary life."
Getting out of that box was actually a pleasant surprise for him, especially since it didn't mean that he had to endure small talk.
"It's nice to converse with someone who asks difficult questions. One artist said to me, 'If you were to draw an image of cancer, what would it look like?' That provocative question was perfect for a guy like me. Head and neck cancer is not well known."
That might be about to change.
Cancer in art
What does cancer look like, according to these survivors and these artists? We've seen what Necyk's translations were.
Looking around, there are clay lumps that look like tabletop tumours. Next to them is what can only be described as a large sculpture of a deformed tongue with a balloon attached to it by a tube.
Another artist has a display of a hospital bed with a figure sitting atop it, knees bent. It's not a human as the figure is more like a mountain with trees and cliffs, vehicles slowly winding up its leg and around its torso. A rockslide has knocked some of them aside, leaving an impenetrable roadblock in its path.
On the wall near this mountain man are some paper cut-outs that are meant to show the cells of the disease. It's all presented in mysterious organic shapes, leaving the exhibit mesmerizing and thought-provoking. I couldn't help but wonder at the inner workings of a body, how normal cells turn to cancer, what I would do with such a diagnosis, what cancer must feel like, what living with a body changed by cancer would be like, and what my friends with cancer have gone through.
There's a lot of bravery that goes behind a show like this and it's nothing to sniff at. What these people shared was deeply personal and undoubtedly difficult. They've allowed the cameras in so they could show their scars, allow us to hear their strained voices, and to talk about facing the unimaginable. Doing so allowed them to play a part in their own recovery and healing. This art exhibit is fascinating for so many reasons, especially since the work of the 'see me, hear me, heal me' project continues.
This exhibit closes in 10 days but will find a new showing at the U of A Hospital's McMullen Gallery in a few months.
FLUX: Responding to Head and Neck Cancer
Artworks by Brad Necyk, Heather Huston, Ingrid Bachmann, Jill Ho-You, Jude Griebel and Sean Caulfield
On until Saturday, Jan. 21
dc3 Art Projects
10567 111 St. in Edmonton
Call 587-520-5992 or visit www.dc3artprojects.com for more information.