YS Arts Council exhibition creatively copes with breast cancer
By Karen Ander Francis
Photo: Susan Gartner’s painted head courtesy of the Jafagirls, whose Bosom Buddies exhibition runs April 21-May 14 at the YS Arts Council
Breast cancer. The diagnosis is always devastating and its treatment is nearly as dreadful as the disease. How do you manage once you’ve heard the diagnosis? How do you tell your loved ones? How do you cope with the wild ride of emotions that accompany the diagnosis, the treatment, the outcome? For some, there is an artful answer.
The Jafagirls, two artists and friends—one the patient and the other a supportive companion—along with their invited guests, share how art-making helped them manage and even find humor after a breast cancer diagnosis. Bosom Buddies: A Journey through Breast Cancer, running April 21 through May 14 at the Yellow Springs Arts Council, explores the creative ways patients and caregivers have dealt with the roller coaster of emotions—fear, anger, grief, bewilderment, and joy—that accompany this disease.
When artist and Jafagirl Corinne Bayraktaroglu, aka “Jafabrit,” learned she had breast cancer in January 2016, she wondered how she would cope during eight months of radiation treatments.
“I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle it,” she admits. “Some people like to be very private, but all my artwork has been about what is going on in my life.” She was concerned about the reactions of family and friends if “boobies” just started showing up on her blog, Jafabrit, without any explanation. She started the blog several years ago as a means of keeping family members who don’t live nearby connected and updated. Over the years, the Jafabrit blog also created a virtual community of artists.
Instead of telling family members and friends one by one in hushed and heavy tones, Bayraktaroglu decided to take the cancer public by adding a page called C-Central to the Jafabrit blog. “C” stood for cancer. Here she posted breast cancer art, treatment updates, and requests for help.
“I also know that people can get very uncomfortable [around cancer],” says the artist. “They don’t know what to say to you—they back away. You lose friends. You lose family.”
Recognizing that often “the people who love you” feel helpless in the face of their loved one’s suffering, Bayraktaroglu decided she would ask people to do something for her. And they did.
“A lot of friends came out to support me and drive me to radiation treatments, as a result,” she reports. Then Bayraktaroglu went even further, and suggested a new take on a Yellow Springs tradition.
“We’ve done yarn bombing [before],” she recalls, referring to a type of street art that uses knitting or crocheting instead of paint or chalk. The colorful fiber art is often seen decorating the trees in Yellow Springs.
“[My friends] could make knitted boobs or circles,” Bayraktaroglu continues. “Instead of being sad, they can laugh.”
The result was a localized boob-storm. At one point, Bayraktaroglu’s husband opened their mailbox and an avalanche of knitted breasts tumbled out.
“They came by mail, they came flying out of cars,” says Nancy Mellon, curator of the Yellow Springs Arts Council and the other half of the Jafagirls. (Fun fact: “Jafa” is short for just another f–king artist. Some suggested fillers include fabulous, funny, or fantastic.)
Mellon recounts an instance when a local woman chucked a knitted breast from her car into the Bayraktaroglus’ front yard, shouting, “Here’s another one.”
“It really almost got out of hand,” Mellon laughs.
“Nancy and I put them together and covered several trees in front of my house,” Bayraktarglu recalls. “Each day I left the house for radiation treatment they made me smile and gave me strength.” The ta-tas have since been removed from the trees to create a wall installation at the Bosom Buddies exhibition.
An unexpected, secondary boob-storm came from an online group called the Knitted Knockers, who collect hand-knitted prosthetics for post-mastectomy patients.
“They sent us the discards, ones that just didn’t turn out right,” Bayraktaroglu recalls. With Mellon’s encouragement, the Jafagirls retreated to the lower level of Bayraktaroglu’s home.
Working together with “great swaths of felt,” the two spent hours with knitted knockers of all different sizes, colors, and yarns. They were not only creating a piece of art, but discovering something in the process.
“That actually took a lot of time and work, laying them out, moving them around, deciding how to display them, and finding ways to unify the disparate knitted boob collection, cutting out shapes and coming up with something to fill the space and connect them visually in some way,” explains Mellon, with vestiges of frenzy still apparent in her voice.
“I was worried about Nancy,” Bayraktaroglu says. However, “it did refocus our attention to something that was positive.”
Rituals and roller coasters
Even before her diagnosis, Bayraktaroglu’s art informed her about what was happening inside her body. One day she randomly doodled a skeleton touching her breast.
“I felt something was wrong,” she recalls. Throughout her treatment, art helped her cope with the emotional roller coaster that is cancer. For the usually upbeat and oftentimes quirky Jafabrit, that meant facing feelings as they surfaced and refusing to succumb to the “tyranny of positivity,” a phrase borrowed from a book by a British cancer victim.
“I’m much more interested in people who are dealing with cancer and dealing with the loss of a boob. Being free to mourn and scream and kick and swear. That’s what my focus has been,” she states in the steady, sure voice of one who has engaged the dark side.
Bayraktaroglu, now cancer free, employs many artful outlets that will be included in Bosom Buddies. There is a pen-and-ink self-portrait series and a noir photographic series showcasing her radiation companion, a small, fuzzy bear alter ego undergoing the treatments with certain bleak whimsy.
“We’re talking about a scruffy little bear,” Mellon says. “It’s not like Hallmark.”
Then there are the 33 landscaping stones, one gathered from the hospital’s garden each time Bayraktaroglu underwent treatment. The first looked so much like a breast that she grabbed it on her way in and later painted a breast. Then there’s the one with bacon, because her radiated skin looked and felt fried. Another is painted with a “blue-arsed fly, because I almost missed my appointment racing around like one,” she laughs. Each small painting is a nod to the dominant feeling in the moment. To celebrate the end of her radiation treatments, Bayraktaroglu returned to the hospital entrance with a basket of stones, some gathered from her own garden. In a private ritual of completion and closure, she replaced the painted stones, and with characteristic whimsy calls it, “a ceremonial dump.”
Friends in need, friends in deed
Included in Bosom Buddies are several small images Mellon recreated from breast prints made during a long-distance “boob-voyage party” on the eve of a California friend’s mastectomy. Connected by cell phone, slathered with paint, and tipsy with champagne, the two made sheet after sheet of colorful breast prints. Examining the prints later with a magnifying glass, Mellon discovered they were gorgeous.
“You could recognize flowers or mountains,” she says. “Skin prints are like fingerprints, very, very telling of who you are.”
Dayton City Paper reached out to Bill Evertson, a virtual artist friend of Jafabrit and contributor to Bosom Buddies. His wife, Karen, has battled cancer for the last four years of their 40-year marriage. Bill has been her primary caregiver and knows that caregivers are often-overlooked, collateral damage of a cancer diagnosis. But not so in their case. Friends often stepped up to visit with Karen when Bill needed to go out.
“Bill didn’t have to worry about me being here alone. It’s important for him to be away for errands or if he’s just going to be by himself,” she reported by phone.
Once a month the couple opened their home to other couples (at least one member of whom was an artist) for “art parties.” They placed art supplies such as clay, paint, and markers on the dining room table. “Sometimes we have a theme,” Bill explains, “but for two to three hours we sit and talk and make art.” He attributes the art-making gatherings as a key way the couple and their friends have coped. “It didn’t take long for people to get over the shock before they wanted to do something,” Bill notes. “And it seemed art was a good way to put something positive back and keep our energy focused on the things we could control, because obviously there are things out of control.”
Once an avid swimmer before cancer struck, Karen imagined herself “Swimming Among the Stars,” the title of the Evertsons’ contribution to Bosom Buddies. Karen now swims among the stars, having passed quietly while this story was being written.
Bosom Buddies celebrates art and friendship, affirming that cancer, no matter the outcome, can be managed with grace and imagination in the company of people who care. The Jafagirls invite others to share their own experiences and will gladly accept works throughout the exhibition. In addition, visitors to the gallery are encouraged to add notes and drawings, craft ideas, and craft examples to a canvas scroll.
As Mellon says of her journey with Bayraktaroglu, “It was an important experience.”
Bosom Buddies: A Journey through Breast Cancer runs April 21-May 14 at the Yellow Springs Arts Council, 111 Corry St. in Yellow Springs. The reception is Friday, April 21 from 6-9 p.m. For more information, please call 937.679.YSAC(9722) or visit Jafabrit.blogspot.com, Jafagirls.blogspot.com, or YSArtsCouncil.org.