How do you present a (literally) life-changing subject to your audience? For artist Valerie Roybal, a sardonic sense of humor helps. “Originally,” she says, “our working title was The Disease Show.”
Roybal’s ability to joke about the subject at the heart of the weighty new exhibit soon to open at SCA Contemporary (524 Haines NW) is a testament to individual strength and courage. For Roybal and a dozen of her peers, survival is the impetus behind Adaptations: An Exhibition About Survival.
A virtual flower bed of organic imagery, the exhibition is comprised of sculpture, painting, collage, photography and installation art. Individual stories are infused with evocative, surreal displays of human vulnerability. A group installation titled “Lifelines” creates a powerful symbol of solidarity as the artists share their cancer experiences through a visual narrative that makes use of ropes, rocks, flowers and other objects of significance.
Life at the crossroads of metastatic breast cancer and its treatment left Roybal to wrestle with her own physiological processes. Eventually she began to reimagine the bodily cell mutations that cause disease and anomaly. These surprisingly delicate images now swim in the foreground of paintings like “The Present 2.”
As difficult as the subject may be, the result is a kaleidoscopic homage to hope and an acknowledgment of the changes faced by survivors of serious illness. "Although my cancer will never be considered eradicated ... at this time it’s considered stable," says Roybal. “I feel immense gratitude for that. I’m also glad for the opportunity and ability to work with this terrifying situation, to transform it through art-making.”
Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of photojournalism, suggested, “Reality offers us such wealth that we must cut some of it out on the spot.” Inspired to do just that, the artists have cut away hard-edged, ugly words like metastatic or colorectal. Cancer’s not-so-secret names are cast off in favor of life affirmations like “Waking,” “Matters” and “Floatation”—all names of pieces on display at SCA from June through late August.
Adaptations exposes the thrumming, cross-sectional heart of the survivor. In some cases, the revelation is literal. Photographer Patrick Nagatani approaches his work with illness in a piece called “Ryoichi and Sid – Albuquerque, NM.” This potent nude was taken eight months after surgeons removed his rectum. Courageously, Nagatani exposes his stoma, the surgically-created opening where waste must now leave the body. Much softer in original Greek, the word means mouth. Nagatani embraces this definition and gives voice to the stoma with the playful nickname Sid. His ability to laugh is especially impressive when you learn that, despite extreme treatments, his cancer returned and is now stage 4.
Acceptance is integral to adaptation. Change inspires the artists to consider the hopeful and unpredictable nature of disease. "I’m fortunate to be 11 years out from surgeries for ovarian cancer, and so far healthy,” says Heidi Pollard. “Most of the adaptations I had to make from the experience of disease ... and living with the consequences have been spiritual and emotional."
Her piece, “Chip File,” is a pragmatic response to fear and many years of fragmented memory after cancer treatment. Pollard had to learn how to do many things anew. This included painting. Color, previously easy to envision and blend, became an unfamiliar enemy. The loss of this natural facility forced her to make paint chips to understand color relationships. Details such as paint manufacturer, shade variety and pigment mixture ratio line the back of these chips as part of her display.
The brainchild of local musician Amy Clinkscales, Adaptations features local and national talents. Like chemical fire, the tone and color of the exhibit is complex and reactive. Optimism, frustration, anger, fear and—yes—a persistent humor all pop from the largely surreal and abstract visions on display. The undeniable sense of unity that bonds these works and their creators is their courage. Early on, the curatorial team revealed their ports and port scars to one another. A medical appliance implanted under the skin, ports are connected to veins or arteries and provide a direct line for cancer treatment. This early act of solidarity and willful revelation exemplifies the courage that imbues the work itself.
A chapbook publication accompanies the exhibit. As a memento of the experience, the book is filled with illustrative essays and photos of selected works. Ultimately the organizers hope the exhibit helps people gain a genuine empathy for the changes caused by disease and its treatments.
The exhibit opens with an opportunity to meet the artists on Friday, June 20, from 5 to 8pm. Adaptations is sure to season the heart with a deep admiration for the tenacity and optimism of the human he(art) in the face of life-changing disease. “I come at it from the position of transformation, making peace with the experience of cancer,” says Roybal.