Beautiful Disaster

Three weeks into cancer and I’m figuring out a few things:

  • My port, “Rose,” is my best friend.
  • If I can nab a recliner in a certain area of MD Anderson, a hospitality cart rolls by with hot tea – multiple flavor options.
  • MD Anderson’s library is well-stocked and more lenient on overdue issues than other libraries searching for me.
  • Effects of taxol (feeling like a ton of bricks piled on me) hit on Thursdays and Fridays.
  • People are ridiculously thoughtful and generous – to the point that I feel guilty about it. This week, in addition to having my Christmas tree assembled, I received homemade crafts of love by a five-year-old, hats, palettes of bottled water and gatorade, a fantastic blanket, flowers, holy water, a monogrammed wrap and the most encouraging calls and notes.

chemo-owl-2Much to my chagrin, my hair is hanging on. I say this, because I keep waiting for the inevitable. Two friends volunteered to join my “bald is beautiful” look in a show of solidarity. (I refused, but appreciated). I have two wigs, more scarves/hats than I can count, and I start each day scanning my pillowcase to evaluate the situation. Yesterday’s appointment to shave my head came and went because Angelique and I agree I have too much hair. It’s like Chinese water torture, losing one strand at a time.

I don’t work on Fridays, so today I’m staying in bed. I finally have an excuse. I contemplated borrowing a friend’s Netflix account and starting Modern Family, but I’m really too tired to focus, even on Sofia Vergara. Looking through photos on my computer, I came upon several images of me and Andy Warhol, who also had bad hair issues and spent a lot of time sick in bed as a child – AND he shares my birthday. (And he predicted the rise of Donald Trump.

This is an excellent article of the contribution of women to the Pop Art movement and includes Sister Mary Corita Kent – one of the reasons I began exploring art.

Son of Slovakian immigrants living in Pittsburgh, Andrew Warhola suffered from a rare disease called Sydenham chorea that caused involuntary movement and skin blotchiness. Decades later, Father of Pop art Andy Warhol documented celebrity and suffering in a garish way to create social movements.

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Warhol might be best known for his Campbell’s Soup Can series, and frankly, I never got the fabulousness of a soup can. This, and most Pop art, seemed silly to me. Learning a little about this era in art, I realized that mocking aspects of contemporary culture is what the genre is all about.

Pop art emerged in the mid-1950s from the Abstract Expressionist movement, when artists such as Willem (and wife Elaine) deKooning and Mark Rothko conjured content from their subconscious by physically working canvases and manipulating paint. (Imagine Pollack flicking and dripping house paint everywhere.) In contrast, Pop artists reverted to painting images that represented something – an actual person, place or thing – and they did so to make a statement about the current state of affairs.

race-riot
 Little Race Riot, 1964, silk screen on linen | The Menil Collection

A specific characteristic of Warhol’s work was the use of a silk screen press to mass produce images (such as the ones of Andy and me above). The technique is also called serigraphy and this excerpt from an article by Sotheby’s explains the process:

Warhol worked with professionals to have the photos he chose transferred onto the mesh of a silk screen. When Warhol passed an ink-laden squeegee over the mesh as the silk screen sat atop his canvas, ink would pass through the mesh and impress a print of his image onto the canvas. Areas of the mesh where a layer of glue has been applied – in Warhol’s case, the ‘negative’ space of the photos he selected – keep paint from passing through to the canvas.

In keeping with the purpose of my blog – combining what I love (art) with what I hate (cancer) – my diagnosis reminded me of Warhol’s Death and Disasters series, in which he silk screened images of car wrecks, the electric chair and civil rights riots. When I first saw these images, I had the same reaction I did to the soup can (and cancer). Really? But Warhol created these images out of his belief that the mass media overexposed people to disasters, desensitizing us to reality and death itself. (Don Henley agreed in his song Dirty Laundry.) The Death and Disasters series was Warhol’s call to empathy, his challenge for us to FEEL the injustice and tragedy.

Art critic Gene Swenson wrote of the series:

“These paintings mute what is present in the single front page each day [the tragedy], and emphasize what is present persistently day after day in slightly different variations [the numbing numbers associated with the tragedy].  Looking at the papers, we do not consciously make the connection between today’s, yesterday’s, and tomorrow’s ‘repetitions’ which are not repetitions.”

Were Warhol alive and working today, he could add a breast cancer component to the Death and Disasters series. Everyone wears pink now to promote breast cancer awareness, including NFL athletes. In my opinion, this ubiquitous action desensitizes us to the disease. Previously, when I heard of a breast cancer diagnosis, I’d think, “Oh, that’s regrettable, but totally treatable. She’ll make it.” Thankfully, these sentiments are usually true, but come at a cost. Walking around MD Anderson with so many bald, pale fighters and their families takes it beyond the glib “Save the Ta-tas” slogan.

img_6041Breast cancer is too common and I have the most common kind (invasive ductal carcinoma). However, those of us fighting breast cancer are not repetitions of one diagnosis. We’re unique people dealing with disaster at different ages and stages. But we, and our experience, can also be beautiful. Fantastic friend William “Spot” Washington told me so, and he’s never let me down. If Tuesday’s treatment was any indication, he’s spot on. (Sorry, had to.)


I took the image at the top of this post, Electric Chair (1964 silkscreen on canvas), at the Yale University Gallery of Art. Below is Houston artist Donkeeboy‘s depiction of young Jean-Michel Basquiat (Bass-key-aht) and Andy Warhol, which you can find at the corner of Polk and Hutchins by 8th Wonder Brewery.

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One thought on “Beautiful Disaster

  1. Samantha Fischer says:

    I had the joy of getting to tour the Warhol museum when I was in Pittsburgh a couple of years ago. He was a fascinating cat. The Death and Disaster Series takes up a large part of a floor and is in a darkened room. It is chilling. What is not chilling? You being able to tie Spot into a tale of Warhol and Basquiat. He is right- you are beautiful and your journey through this is so unique and I thank you so much for allowing us in on such a private voyage.

    Liked by 1 person

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