The Canary and the Art Song

by Margaret Stanton Murray

 

 

 

Never doubt that a small, highly
committed group of individuals can
change the world; indeed it is the
only thing that ever has."

Margaret Mead 1

 

 

 

 

 

Margaret Stanton Murray, Figure #1,
Black & White Photomural, 60" x 40", 1991-93.


Breast cancer has been called the canary in the coal mine, (2) an indication of a global public health crisis. Breast cancer is the most common cancer for women in the world. In the United States, it is the leading cause of death in women ages 35 to 54. The incidence of breast cancer among American women has more than doubled over the past 30 years. In 1964 the lifetime risk ofbreast cancer was 1 in 20. Today it is 1 in 8, and 1 in 7 in some areas. Since it is neither a contagious nor an inherited disease, it is an indicator that something in modern life is creating this disease in women. Many scientists have begun to investigate a link between breast cancer and environmental factors.(3)

Breast cancer has also been an indicator of dysfunctional national health policies. In the last decade, grassroots activists have drawn congressional attention to the fact that it was a womens disease? Advocates point out that womens health, in general, needs consideration in terms of its unique characteristics which require specific research, preventive and primary care, and focused action. Mainstream medicine and research have been slow to acknowledge that womens health may have its own distinct profile. Lack of understanding, poor research and plain neglect, have hampered progress in dealing with womens health needs. Historically, knowledge about womens health has been limited by lack of research. According to the Womens Research and Education Institute, the impediment seems to be absence of scientific imagination to conceive that the male body is not the only reliable model on which to base treatment for disease, aging and stress. The examples are astonishing. One study of aspirins preventive effect on heart disease failed to include a single woman in its sample of 20,000 physiciansalthough 10% of American physicians at the time were women. The largest federal study on aging excluded women from the researchostensibly because there was no womens bathroom at the site where study participants were medically assessed. Major research called Normal Human Aging, contained no research findings on women, although women outnumber men dramatically in their senior years. A large study of heart disease risk factors was conducted on 13,000 men at a cost of $115 million; the studys acronym (Mr. Fit) confirms the scientific communitys insensitivity to womens health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death among American women as well as men, accounting for 31 percent of female deaths.(4)

Due largely to the efforts of the Congressional Caucus for Womens Issues and the Task Force on Womens Health, in the late 80s and early 90s, a systematic effort was launched to address issues related to gender bias in research and clinical practice. The National Institutes of Health began by developing a new policy encouraging researchers to include women in clinical studies or else provide a clear rationale for their exclusion. Eventually the NIH was pressured to increase its investment in womens health research (in 1987 it had been only 13.5%) and to require the inclusion of women proportionally to the extent they were affected by the disease being studied; to refuse to fund grants or contracts to researcherswho did not comply; and to design clinical trials so that an analysis of gender differences could be done. Women have now become a mandatory focus of gender-specific research into major life-threatening diseases, from cardiological problems to cancer. The comprehensive Womens Health Equity Act addressed the deficiencies in the treatment of womens health in three critical fields: research, services and prevention. Two initiativescontraceptive and infertility research in addition to informed consent for breast cancer treatment (which required doctors to inform women of the treatment options before a mastectomy was performed)were the first components of the Womens Health Equity Act. The bill sped up policy changes at the NIH. When Dr. Bernadine Healy took over as director, she established plans for a Womens Health Initiative, a fourteen-year study of 150,000 women to focus on preventing breast cancer, osteoporosis and heart disease.(5)

Congresswomen Patricia Schroeder and Olympia Snowe, commenting on the politics of womens health, have said: We believe that the caucuss efforts have forever changed the debate on womens health. ... And above all, we hope that we will be the last generation of women to battle diseases like breast and ovarian cancer with so little information about their causes and so little hope for their cure.(6)

But there is still much work to be done. Individuals and private organizations are carrying the message to the public. They feel a pressing need to inform and educate the public in the face of what appears to be an increasing peril. Many of them are employing the strategy of using art to capture the publics attention, sentiment and financial support. Recently there have been several impressive exhibitions and coordinated events in the Bay Area. The Art.Rage.Us. exhibition at the Jewett Gallery in the San Francisco Main Library served as a platform for seven weeks of educational and fund-raising events which took place all over the Bay Area from April through June. The project was co-sponsored by The Breast Cancer Fund, the American Cancer Society and The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, all of which share the common mission of the eradication of breast cancer. Proceeds from the Art.Rage.Us. project will fund vital patient service programs with particular focus on reaching underserved women and research seeking the causes of breast cancer. Why an art exhibition as a vehicle for education and fund raising? In many ways, the diverse works that were ultimately selected for the exhibition reflect many of the common reactions to this disease, explains Andrea Martin, Founder and Executive Director of TBCF, who with fellow activists Ginny Soffa and Susan Claymon conceived and directed this project. Martin says she is not surprised by the passion and intensity of the collection. Many women use art as part of the healing process. United through an unwelcome shared experience and inspired to create in the face of adversity, they present the art and outrage of breast cancer.(7)

A commemorative catalog, in which I have the honor to have my work included, was created in collaboration with Chronicle Books, Inc. It makes the collection of paintings, drawings, photography, sculpture, poetry, essays and other art forms accessible now and in the future to a broad range of people. Claymon is convinced that the whole project-exhibition, book, and educational programs-along with media coverage, has achieved the most powerful breast cancer project ever undertaken in the San Francisco Bay Area. The voices and visions of the artists send a message about the enormity of the issue everywhere. These strong works of art will provide spiritual fuel for those living with breast cancer to keep fighting and for those who do not have the disease to be deeply moved by the struggle these women have faced.

In the introduction to the catalog, Jill Eikenberry (of L.A.Law fame) writes about her reactions to the power of the art in this exhibition:

I recognize this stripping away of facades in many of the writings and art works on these pages. To me, it explains why many of the portraits include bare chests and bald heads. These women have gotten to the point where telling the truth is far more important than worrying about what people might think. In fact the power of their honesty makes them quite beautiful.(8)

The epilogue written by Terry Tempest Williams further expands the notion of the power of art to move us in these circumstances:

Collisions with mortality always create death dreams, day-dreams, creative detours of mind that circle our fears and transform them. These moments of acute awareness allow us to claim our deepest desires: I want to live. I want to love. I want more time, here, now, on Earth. Perhaps this is the gift of illness or biopsies or blood tests or any other momentary pause that allows us to reflect on the delicacy of life, the importance and sustainablility of our relations.(9)

The variety of work in the Art.Rage.Us. exhibition permits the strength of each voice to bring a different facet to the assemblage and to the accumulating volume and cacophony of its piercing message.

 

Hollis Sigler, A Longed For Dream of Fulfillment, oil on canvas with painted frame, 32" x 36". 1996.
 

At another venue during June and July, at the Palo Alto Cultural Center, curator Signe Mayfield chose a different strategy.(10) Here the approach was to allow the work of one artist, Hollis Sigler from her Breast Cancer Journal , to attest in depth to her experience. Mayfield also brought in the accompanying exhibition, A Game of Chance, organized by Sigler, where 54 invited artists each contributed an original work based on a randomly dealt playing card. These works were reproduced to create a standard deck of cards which are sold to benefit Y-ME, a non-profit national breast cancer organization.(11) The exhibition consisted of 15" by 18" original works by the artists who wove references to the card they chanced to receive into their reflections on cancer. Some of the artists referred to their personal appointments with fate. Nancy Frieds five of diamonds, Masking the Pain, depicts a lone figure without hands, faceless, blouse crumpled and sagging where once the form of a breast had filled it. Behind the figure on the wall of the cell-like room are red slash marks, as though made by a prisoner counting the days. Audrey Niffeneggers five of spades is Self Portrait as St. Agatha, showing a head with long streaming blonde hair and watery eyes turned upward in the traditional saint-like gaze. Below are two punctured holes in the paper, torn out where breasts would be. Fred Stonehouse made his tearful serpent queen of clubs reign over diagrams recognizable from pamphlets designed to educate about the female body and cancer. A promising lotus flower blooms on a growing club stalk at the perimeter, as though from this darkness enlightenment will dawn. An effective film, Rachels Daughters (12) was shown at PACC in conjunction with the Art.Rage.Us. series of events. The title of the film pays homage to Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, who warned against the dangers of increasing contamination of our environment. Filmmakers Allie Light and Irving Saraf feel that breast cancer can become a wedge to open the minds of the public and policy makers to the links between health and environment. The intention of the film is to shift the focus of public attention from the detection and treatment of breast cancer to researching known and suspected causes of the disease, as well as ways to prevent it. Mayfield describes the film as relentless in the pace and tenacity of the information it documents.(13) It is 106 minutes brimming with interviews of scientists and medical personnel who investigate links between breast cancer and such environmental factors as radiation, electromagnetic fields, pesticides, endocrine disrupting chemicals, hormones, life styles, and genetics. The film encourages us to get informed, get involved and get political.

The active external quest that the film stirs in us is also implied in the Hollis Sigler exhibition, but we arrive via a different path. Rather than through the convincing nature of scientific inquiry or direct confrontation, we are affected by an alternate meansthe emotional power of art. Tolstoy has described this process as: Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings one has lived through, and that others are infected by these feelings and also experience them.(14)

After Sigler was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985, she went through a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments for a later recurrence. Then in 1992, she suffered a third recurrence, now in her bones. Knowing that she would have to live with the disease, Sigler was compelled to turn the focus of her work toward the disease, producing her series Breast Cancer Journal.(15) In an interview with Debra Donato, Sigler stated, I really do have to live with this disease, and probably die with the disease. With this in mind, I decided to change my work. I decided that I now had to incorporate the cause, because as an artist I have an obligation to say something, to be responsible to my community.(16)

Hollis Sigler had a rigorous academic training she received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1973 and had a successful career with a series of realistic paintings of swimmers. When her work began to address personal issues in her life, she abandoned this direction and turned to a faux naif style.

Siglers work draws us in with its delightful colors and playful composition. The visual elements are organized in a disarmingly childlike manner with centered subjects and symmetrically divided spaces. The color is rich and luminous, the draughtmanship purposely innocent. Although the presentation initially seems lighthearted and charming, we are soon struck by the dark undercurrent in these images. We are attracted to a fantasy Cinderella dress with gay blue flounces and floating ribbons carried by black birds, when we notice it is headless and dancing out the door toward a stark landscape where a classical statue of a woman with one amputated breast awaits. As we approach we see text at the top of the painting: The Longed for Dream of Fulfillment. More text encircles the frame with a hopeful message implying the healing potential of a newly discovered BRCA1 gene.

Scanning the collection of works in the PACC gallery, it becomes apparent that repetition of a visual language of signs, symbols, and codes pervade these works. Although the objects may reappear, their properties change to communicate nuances of fear, terror, anger, loneliness, pain and even hopefulness. Trees, birds, articles of clothing, furniture, rooms, windows, costumes are skillfully manipulated in shape, color and implied motion to convey to us her emotional turmoil. In an oil pastel called Wishing She Could Take a Vacation From Her Disease, trees which hold a string of vibrant but delicate paper lanterns, have their broken trunks bandaged with processed wood strips and wire coiled around them to hold them upright. A table, flowers, one place setting and a lone chair are set up at the edge of the lanterns glow in the surrounding darkness. Black birds soar around the perimeter in a dark red space suggesting the inside of eyelids closed against this yellow lantern light. Trees appear and reappear throughout many of the magessometimes elon-gated and icy cold, other times attenuated as though stunted with compressed, convoluted energy. In a more hopeful image, Hope is Out there...Waiting for Us to Find Her, trees form a lacy edge along distant hills against a starry sky.

Birds animate Siglers images like a narrative chorussometimes swarming dark and ominously or gliding demoniacally while carrying objects to unknown spaces. In The Last time I Saw It, It Was 1994, black birds pluck clothing from dresser drawers, emptying them and strewing items about the room or stealing them away out the window. The text on the frame reads: I felt like my body had betrayed me. Disease does that...like bits and pieces of myself are being snatched from my person when I wasnt looking. I realized life is a process. Yet in another work, Being On the Edge of Great Discoveries, birds become a filigree of white messengers fluttering out of a gift box promising hope. Its frame posits expectations that research on BRCA1 will open a host of possibilities for the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer.

There are other signifiers weaving through Siglers images that lead us through her personal story on an emotional level and stimulate our intellect. Her reference to possible causes of cancer is apparent in She Knew She Was Under the Sign. A coffee maker, refrigerator, liquid mixer and vacuum cleaner hover in the sky above a house with a cut-away wall, allowing a view into the bedroom with its electric lamp and perhaps an electric blanket on the bed. The electric appliances are a clear reference to the notion that electromagnetic fields contribute to cancer.

Siglers work juxtaposes the subjective experience against the logical informational outer world by her use of text. She states, My objective is to inform. And I think [the text] counterpoints the visual, because the visual always has to do with emotions. It is a way of putting the cause in the work, and making it very specific, which makes people notice it.

Hollis Sigler is a demonstration of an artist working in the context of community to affect change. Sigler has said that she does not think of her-self
as an activist in the usual sense, politically or socially. However, she does feel that it is important to see the artist as member of society rather than on the fringe, working with art for arts sake. She says ...artists do not, I know for myself, see themselves as too different than the rest of society. Yeah, everyone feels alienated. It doesnt matter who you talk to, there will always be a reference to the other. All of us want what everyone else has. We dont want to be homeless or hungry. We want material possessions just like most people do... I could say my art is activist, but I think of it as a little more than that in terms of redefining society and redefining arts functions.

Viewing this exhibition of Hollis Siglers work, I struggle to maintain balance between being inundated by empathy for the tragedy of this devastating experience and by my struggle to surface, gasping for some solace, some avenue of action. The tables of information which accompany the exhibit with brochures from local, regional and national groups working to defeat the epidemic of breast cancer, offer suggestions for avenues to access information and to contribute to beneficial change.

And so I return to the two elements: breast cancer and the signalling canary singing the art song of alarm. Ironically, I see that the feeling form of art is doing battle with bottom liner thinking. Art here has stepped away from art for arts sake to challenge the profit for profits sake corporate values. Will it be able to penetrate the shield of irresponsibility of those who contaminate our environment? Will it persuade the public to ask who runs our lives? Will it help us, as the strategy in Rachels Daughters suggests, to Get the Facts! Get Going! Get Involved! Get Political! Dare to think outside the box!? What I do know is that I see myself and other women artists dealing with breast cancer, making art for our love of life-and we sing! "



1 As quoted by the Bay Area Cancer Network San Jose (408 261 1425), a nonprofit Y-ME Affiliate, on their brochure.

2 In the past, coal miners used to take a canary into the mines with them. If the bird died, it indicated that oxygen was dangerously low and they needed to surface quickly.

3 Rachels Daughters, Searching for the Causes of Breast Cancer, Community Action & Resource Guide, Light-Saraf Films, San Francisco, CA.

4 Betty Dooley, Cynthia Costello and Anne J. Stone, ed., The American Woman, 1994-95, Where We Stand, (New York: W.W.Norton & Co., 1995).

5 Dooley, et al., ed.,The American Woman.

6 The Honorable Patricia Schroeder and the Honorable Olympia Snowe, The Politics of Womens Health, in The American Woman., Dooley, et al., ed., 108.

7 Jacqueline A. Tasch, ed., Art.Rage.Us., Art and Writing by Women with Breast Cancer (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1998).

8 Jill Eikenberry, Resonance, in Art.Rage.Us., 9-10.

9 Terry Tempest Williams, Clearcut, Art.Rage.Us., 169.

10 Interview with Signe Mayfield, curator, Palo Alto Cultural Center, July 1998.

11 Signe Mayfield, Hollis Sigler & A Game of Chance, exhibition pamphlet, Palo Alto Cultural Center, June 1998.

12 Rachels Daughters, Light-Saraf Films, S.F., (New York: Women Make Movies Tel:212 925 0606).

13 Interview with Signe Mayfield.

14 Leo Tolstoy, What is Art? in Art and Its Significance, An Anthology of Aesthetic Theory, 2nd ed., Stephen David Ross, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1987).

15 The exhibition pamphlet indicates that fully illustrated monograph Hollis Siglers Breast Cancer Journal, (tentative title) is being published by Hudson Hills Press in association with the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington,DC.

16 Debra Dues Donato, Cause and Effect, An Interview with Hollis Sigler, New Art Examiner, (March 1994) 32-33. Subsequent quotes from this interview come from the same source. 6




Margaret Stanton Murray has been interested in women's health issues since her own experience
with breast cancer in 1991. She has exhibited personal work, written, curated, made presentations,
and participated on panels in local, national and international venues.
 



Self-Inventory and The Other