Visual Arts

Cold Comfort

The subject of illness blips onto the cultural radar screen with regularity, but usually under the aegis of fund raising. Formal balls, dinners, 10K races--those are the public faces of disease in the Western world. Lately, however, an art/illness hybrid seems to be, if not blooming, at least growing.

The famous AIDS quilt provides some measure of the trend. Initially a city block long in 1987, the conceptual piece now stretches for 11 blocks, and during a recent unfurling in Washington, D.C., it could be accessed via five different transit stops. Now breast cancer seems to be launching an art movement. It is international in scope, and most of the work is created by survivors of the disease.

A tip of that artistic iceberg can be seen in Phoenix Sunday evening, when the Icehouse hosts The Invisible Woman, a multimedia installation to be created by a number of Phoenix artists and anybody else who shows up. It is a project of the Melting Museum, an installation and performance art series dealing solely with subjects that are--well--hard to talk about. October is national breast cancer awareness month, but what we're invited to observe at the Icehouse lies somewhat beyond mere consciousness-raising.

Like most Melting Museum events, a key factor in the show is ephemeral. This time it's ice. Before the event, breast-cancer survivors and anybody else who wants to participate will create personal ice sculptures by freezing symbolic items in liquid. The frozen objects, which are meant to illustrate the emotional dimensions of breast cancer, will be accompanied by explanatory stories, which will be mounted in a book and read during the show. The meaning of the ice isn't completely clear, but it seems to stand for the fear of thinking about breast cancer. Melting allows the emotional content of the disease, including death, to be acknowledged.

At the center of the piece is a giant, flat, steel figure of a woman created from an image by artist Rose Johnson. While Tempe vocalist Pearl plays dulcimer and performs pertinent songs, participants will place their icy objects on the tablelike steel figure. Eventually, the ice melts, revealing the symbols, and the figure, the event's sponsors hope, becomes a sculptural everywoman of breast cancer. The objects left behind will be used in a permanent sculpture to be placed in the Icehouse's Garden of Thorns.

The force behind The Invisible Woman is the Breast Cancer Art Group, which is also responsible for current art exhibits at the American Cancer Society and Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix. Tempe artist, weaver and breast-cancer survivor Sheila Sridharan organized the group last May. She says it began when she went to Hertis Maclellan, Coordinator of Breast Cancer Programs at Good Samaritan. Both women had heard about Healing Legacies, a Burlington, Vermont, registry for art from the United States, Canada, France and Great Britain created by artists who had breast cancer.

Encouraged by that group's work, Sridharan and Maclellan put the word out and soon assembled 25 Arizona artists, ranging in age from 22 to 60, who had breast cancer. All of the women do work that is suffused with their illness. Says Sridharan, "They have something they need to say, and they have a sense that, 'If I am ever going to do anything, now is the time.'"

The question nags: Why aren't the survivors of other major afflictions--lung cancer and heart disease, say--also generating art movements?

The answer is, in the broadest terms, cultural. This is the breast we are talking about, the nurturing organ, and, maybe more important, the sex organ, star of a million ad campaigns, magazine covers and wet dreams. Sridharan says the breast has a potent metaphorical place in the culture. "Seen as the essence of femininity, womanhood and female sexuality, it becomes iconographic," she says.

Breast-cancer artist Maria Mannino says, "When a woman is faced with having the part of the body that signifies gender removed--it becomes more than what it is. Even if you remove that modern media mirror, the symbol remains. In a primitive culture, breasts are similarly symbolic. Fertility goddesses have full breasts." And then, say the artists, you have the surgery, and later, when you revisit your womanhood and femininity and sexiness and beauty, the profound need arises to describe the process.

"Fears and thoughts and emotions are part of healing and they can be experienced through art," says Good Samaritan's Maclellan. "Survivors look at the art of other survivors and associate with the feelings expressed. But for people who haven't experienced those feelings," she says, "it can be shocking."

Maclellan refers to certain pieces that were not shown in either the Good Samaritan or cancer society displays. Those pieces, both created by a Phoenix artist who doesn't wish to publicize her disease in the city where she lives, demonstrate the clear vision and execution characteristic of great art. The works in question are also chilling. They include depictions of a breast being amputated by a saw blade and a field of breasts poised beneath a pathologist's microscope. Both were shown in St. Louis to acclaim in a show assembled by Healing Legacies. A woman who saw them there admitted, "She had the guts to say what I felt."

The imagery is reminiscent of German expressionism, a movement whose work is said to have developed new symbols for creatures that haunt the imagination after a tragedy. For the Germans, the tragedy was World War I; for the breast-cancer artists, it's a death dance with a life-threatening illness.

"People want to think about healing as peace and love and serenity, and there is that part of it, yet healing also involves anger, anguish, fear, depression and other scary emotions. The artist is inclined to look at those parts," says Sridharan.

She and other artists agree that the excluded paintings were too strong for the hospital and cancer society settings. Still, they wanted to do a show where no holds would be barred.

"I knew the Icehouse's reputation for free expression," says Sridharan. "But they only do installations, not exhibits. We contacted Helen Hestenes, the curator of the Melting Museum, and she came back with the idea of The Invisible Woman. What I like is that it is there for anyone who wants to participate."

It's a week or so before the show, and Sridharan has set out three "test ice pieces" in her Tempe weaving studio, Corn River Textiles. The ice has become transparent, revealing its contents. In the first dish, a compact disc is decorated by a pretty mint green wire that uncoils to form a three-dimensional breast shape. A straight green wire cuts scarlike across a second CD. In another dish sits an ice chunk melting around the seashells suspended in it. Some of the shells fall away and sit alone in a pool of water. The third piece shows tiny skeins of different colored yarn ready to be woven, a contemplation on what happens to an artist when she dies.

"When Helen first suggested The Invisible Woman, it was kind of a shock," says Sridharan. "I don't like pointing out the thing that I have the most trouble dealing with--my death, what happens when my body's gone. But I like the idea that people can bring their own ideas; I like the idea of the ritual, of that many people coming together."

What will people who haven't faced breast cancer get out of this? "They might contemplate their own death," suggests Sridharan, "or their own lives."

The Invisible Woman takes shape at 7 p.m. Sunday, October 27, in the Cathedral Room of the Icehouse, 429 West Jackson (258-2327). Freeze bags are available at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe.