Introducing Drawing Women’s Cancer

            A scientifically competent medicine alone cannot help a patient grapple with the loss of health and find meaning in illness – Rita Charon

The Cut, Jac Saorsa

The Cut, Jac Saorsa

The Drawing Women’s Cancer project introduces an artist’s perspective into women’s cancer treatment in Wales and originates in a collaboration between myself, Dr Jac Saorsa, artist, researcher and educator, and Dr Amanda Tristram, Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant in Gynaecological Oncology, Cardiff University. As a productive and collaborative interaction between art and science, the project is embedded in the Medical Humanities, and where sensitive engagement with the personal stories related to the artist by cancer patients generates a visual response of their lived experience, the project seeks to extend the ethos and the methodological parameters of narrative medicine through the creation and practice of visual language. Dialogue is the key.

As the artist involved I have presented the Drawing Women’s Cancer project at various seminars and conferences including, most recently, the Narrative Future for Healthcare Conference at King’s College Guys in London. I will also be presenting at the Attentive Writers Conference in Glasgow later this year.

In the meantime I am delighted to have been offered the position of Visiting Scholar at the University of Texas Medical Branch Institute for the Medical Humanities at Galveston, in order to work on a project called Speaking the Unspeakable: A Monograph. As a ‘pilot’ project undertaken in 2012 and culminating in a major exhibition at the Senedd Welsh Assembly building, Speaking the Unspeakable served as a forerunner to the Drawing Women’s Cancer project as a whole, and throughout October and November this year I will using my time at Galveston to draft out the book that documents it for publication. I will also be making regular posts to the CMH blog to document the progression of the work and my experiences at this world- renowned institution and this post, I hope, will serve as an introduction. I hope also to post a series of drawings that I will also be making to accompany the text and naturally I would welcome any comments/communication from those interested in the project.

To introduce myself then, I am an artist with a background in philosophy and a passion for exploring what Heidegger would call Dasein, our ‘being-in-the-world’. My work is deeply rooted in a constant and undeniable obsession with the complexities of human existence, and especially with what I see as the inescapable conflict between robustness and frailty in terms health and sickness and our engagement with the perceived reality of our world. My practice, which includes both visual art and the written word, embraces a kind of creative multilingualism, the interpenetrative relation between visual and conventional language that derives from and creates in turn a fundamental narrative, a subtext by which we exist both as individuals and in relation to the ‘other’.  I work with the body as form and with the psyche as content. My involvement in Drawing Women’s Cancer has taken me to a part of the world that Sontag describes as the ‘kingdom of the sick’. Women suffering gynaecological diseases, citizens of this kingdom, have welcomed me as a kindred soul even though I live, without pain, in the ‘kingdom of the well’. These women understand that in fact we all hold ‘dual citizenship’, and having listened to and immersed myself in their stories, I too have come to the understanding that where we all have a stake in both kingdoms only time, fortune and biomedical intervention allows us to mediate between the one and the other. But I have also learned from being with these women, that there is another place, one that does not appear in Sontag’s conception; a place in between, a ‘liminal space’ wherein the extremes of health and ill-health give way to overall experience. This is the place where objectivity and subjectivity collide and commune, where mediation affords meaning the opportunity to take on a new persona, and where the overall impact of illness cannot be reduced to a clinical conception of disease.

The Drawing Women’s Cancer project involves my having conversations or with patients over the period of their treatment for cancer, and with their health professionals and carers. Data derived from transcripts of these ‘encounters’ provides the basis for the creative and exploratory drawing process that generates works both for public exhibition and for patient focused resource material. The interactive approach is crucial as it enables all participants to have a ‘personal involvement’ in the production of the artwork.

Although the physical effects of gynaecological disease are readily described, little is known about the psychological, emotional and social impact of the condition. Furthermore, development of such understanding is limited by the condition’s taboo nature, its occurrence in a body area that people are reluctant to talk about. In short, gynaecological disease is ‘unspeakable’. This creates a vicious circle wherein suffering the disease itself, along with attendant psycho-sexual, socio-cultural and self-esteem issues, is compounded by the general lack of awareness, itself compounded by the scarcity of accurate information. The Drawing Women’s Cancer project as a whole aims to raise public awareness of the existence of all gynaecological cancers, and in highlighting women’s cancers and reflecting the existential experience of illness through art we aim to exploit the potential to change the way that cancer is ‘seen’ and understood in general and have a positive effect both on how the public respond to cancer patients, and how women with cancer come to terms with their own situation.


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