Artistic Expressions of a Woman’s Cancer Journey

Winter 2016, Living Well Magazine

by Rachel Douglass

Rachel Douglass, a past participant of our Cancer Fundamentals Retreat program, explains how her own Breast Cancer journey has fuelled her fire, to inspire and empower others through the beauty of art, with her upcoming Skin of a Rhino, Heart of a Dove Exhibition…

The complex and emotional impact of a Breast Cancer diagnosis has a profound and often misunderstood impact on women’s lives. The journey women embark upon; will change their lives forever, in both subtle and significant ways.

To discover my Cancer had returned and spread to both lungs and liver was completely terrifying. In order to understand and transcend above what was happening to me, I immersed myself into artistic pursuits. Creative journal writing became an intimate and powerful tool, a way in which to reflect and absorb. I searched for other ways to express my Cancer Journey and began to work collaboratively with photographer Lea Hawkins.

For me, Art and Life meld as one. They always have. I studied at the National Art School in Darlinghurst and Graduated with a major in Sculpture. Due to the harsh fumes, I am unable to pursue my passion of working with steel. This became the catalyst to search for other artistic ways to express myself.

This devastating disease has woven its way through four generations of my family. My prognosis was dire. I felt like my life had been ripped away from beneath my feet. Treatment was challenging but I embraced all that was offered, both conventional and holistic. I embarked on weekly chemo, often experiencing only one good day before the next treatment. After 47 sessions, I have hit saturation point. At 40 years of age and mother of two young children, the determination to live well is immense.

My desire to search for meaning in adversity fuelled the fire within. I became intrigued by the life and art of Spanish painter, Frida Kahlo, and she has become a source of inspiration to create a body of work. I love her quote “why do I need feet, when I have wings to fly”. It is a reminder of the importance of a positive mindset. To embrace what we do have, rather than dwell on what we don’t. To live each day with gratitude and appreciate things that we would otherwise have taken for granted.

Working with Lea has been an interesting experience. Together we have experimented with different mediums and are now exploring contemporary techniques with traditional materials. The works are continually evolving; they are deeply personal and layered in meaning.

We were thrilled to be accepted into the Shoalhaven City Art Gallery, for an Exhibition in September/October 2016. This will co-inside with Breast Cancer awareness month, with a view to being of interest to the wider community. The Exhibition is centered on a young woman’s personal journey with Genetic Breast Cancer.

It seeks to capture the essence of ‘strength’, ‘resilience’ and ‘hope’, through powerful images. The central theme is the duality between the vulnerability faced by all young women confronted with the disease and the strength necessary to prevail. This inspired the title of the Exhibition, ‘Skin of a Rhino, Heart of a Dove’. The works experiment with the concepts of ‘metamorphosis’, ‘identity’ and the ‘individual’.

Even throughout the deep sadness and sense of loss, there can be incredible transformations. The journey can be one of our greatest teachers. Along the way, I have discovered that it is important to keep love in one’s heart, and not be engulfed by the darkness. To try and be authentic to different emotional states but seek ways in which to think about them differently. The artworks allow the viewer to explore these concepts, by the process of shifting the gaze, through a unique visual path.

After a bi-lateral mastectomy, major skin graft, and hair loss, initially I felt stripped of my femininity. I became intrigued to discover that many women feel similar, and are also catapulted into the life changing experience of adapting both physically and physiologically. Almost like a re-invention of one self.

The journey through Breast Cancer can certainly make us look and feel different but within this transformation, beauty and femininity can still emerge. A beauty that is rich, layered and meaningful. 

I am hoping that this visual exploration of a Breast Cancer Journey is portrayed in a way, which inspires others to follow.

Skin of a Rhino, Heart of a Dove Exhibition
by Rachel Douglass & Lea Hawkins

Shoalhaven City Art Gallery
12 Berry Street, Nowra, NSW, 2541
From: Saturday 17th Sep through to Saturday 5th Nov
Launch: Saturday 17th September, 12noon-2pm

For more information, please call (02) 4429 5444 or click here.