My grandmother had a saying, “What is, is. What ain’t, ain’t.” Simplistic to the core, but truth often is just that. Her saying did not apply to cancer because cancer did not run in our family. That is, not before me.
It has been a couple decades since my breast cancer diagnosis, long enough to outgrow and outlive the accompanying anxiety, long enough for me to almost forget. Almost. Until my altered body and brain reminds me. That scar crawling three-quarters of the way around my flattened chest. That lack of strength from my missing pectoralis. Those numbing sensations in my fingertips and toes that make me stumble over my own feet, make me snap the handles of my most delicate brushes. That tinnitus that whispers to me like a busy phone connection. That capricious dyslexic chemo brain that insists a five is an eight is a three and why in hell should I be adding them anyway. All these things, and many more, are the detritus of cancer and its treatments. I have accepted them, coped with them, and moved on, but these scars remain a nudge, a wake-up call to the most important cancer fact of all—I am still alive and functioning! I would like to grab your hand and share the journey with you, since after all, “What is, is,” and in the thrifty ways of my grandmother, “Never waste anything. Somebody else can maybe get some good out of it.”
I am an artist who had a bilateral radical mastectomy with adjuvant chemotherapy. When I was diagnosed, I vowed I would continue to make art every day, even if all I could manage was a scribble with a Bic pen on lined notebook paper. Soon my walls became littered with a staggering amount of art: pastels, oils, watercolors, drawings, collage. Tacked up with push pins, overlapping, scrunched into corners, hung onto doors and window frames, some were little more than rubbish, some were okay, a few were not bad at all. Now what? A year had passed and I was alive and moderately healthy, so what purpose could all this work serve?
Art is essentially communication, whether self-communication or outward to the world. Impressionism, expressionism, realism, all heads of the same self-Hydra. Fine art is personal on a universal level—I am a lapsed art history major morphed into an artist, so I understand. Van Gogh and Leonardo, Frieda Kahlo and even I, the unknown in my backwoods hideaway, united in our need to say, “Look at this.” I decided I wanted someone to look.
But how? How could anyone look at these 365 pieces of art in the same way I created them? To neatly frame them on gallery walls would be phony, false to my experience, false to the muse of cancer because cancer is never neat, never predictable, and I had painted and glued and sweated and drawn with bloody bandaged fingertips to record the truth of the experience, pitiful as the product might be. No, nothing neat there. This was a physical journey for me and the viewer should view the works in a similar manner of shock and discovery and redemption.
Doors. I decided to display my art on doors salvaged from anonymous donors to suggest a universal time frame, so that my daily personal experiences would gain further shades of implication when presented upon the fabric of others’ lives. I designed a large installation project of fifty-two found doors, freestanding in an inverse/obverse spiral maze, so viewers would encounter the art week by week as I had made it, to physically walk through a year in my life, illustrating that doors simultaneously entrap and shelter while they obscure and reveal. The metaphor of cancer.
Although I have no personal connection to any of these doors, each of them was touched by the hand of a person with cancer or with cancer in their family. How do I know this? Because statistics tell us each of us will have cancer or will have a family member who has died or been diagnosed with cancer. It is all pervasive. It is a part of life. Cancer is part of the human condition. So I have left the scrapes and the dents, the personal ephemera behind. The hook where a bathrobe might have hung. The decals, the dog leashes, the cracked glass, the broken locks. Each one a private story, now made public, now shared along with my art. The DNA left by the hand of a stranger on a doorknob now frozen forever as a time capsule.
The outside of each door holds various common items suggesting imaginary scenarios between these found objects and their relationships to the doors, to their former owners, and to the artworks hidden on the other side, inviting an intimate confrontation as the viewer approaches, bringing his or her own experiences to the interpretation.
This exhibit also serves to honor and in some small measure to connect with the experiences of others who have gone through their own periods of pain and trial and ultimate triumph, whatever the loss, whatever the disease. My problem was nothing compared to the tragedies faced by others, yet being life-threatening, it was of paramount importance to me and forced changes in my life on all levels. All the trite platitudes are true. The balance between self- awareness and self-absorption is a delicate one, and it is only by the seeming dichotomy of turning inward and outward simultaneously that we can achieve the greatest benefit from the experience. The inside of the current doors and the outside of the future doors are viewed simultaneously. The mystery of the future and the reality of the present.
This is the real breast cancer. This is what it is like in the trenches. There are no pink ribbons here. No rah-rah spirit. There is pain. Real pain that rots your body and mind and seems to infiltrate the atmosphere around you. And you never truly escape. Entomologists say that we are never more than six feet from a spider at any given time, anywhere. Cancer can be like that, a metaphor of largely unseen webs building in the darkness, ready to capture the unwary.
By creating “A Year In Oblivion” I intended to involve viewers to the extent that they become participants, to more fully relate to the experiences of being diagnosed with and of living with cancer. I have chosen to display a year of my daily artworks within a maze since when living with cancer, you cannot see around the corner, you only move relentlessly forward. You are cut off from the former normalcy of the outside. You realize you cannot go back, you cannot just open a door and be free from the disease. You must focus ahead and walk the necessary steps. Dues must be paid and you are not in a position to question the bill. The doors to your former life are now locked and although you can see them, you cannot take a break or a vacation because cancer does not. This is now your job and once you accept that, you can move forward through this maze that has become your life, and as you move forward you may become stronger, weaker, have good days and bad, but you discover that you can live within the scope of the disease and can function within that scope.
Cancer surrounds us. Cancer is more a journey than a battle, more a job than a war, more living with than dying from. Each day is a decision to remain vigilant and to strive for positive changes. I chose to do this through my art. Some may exercise more, others may reach out to friends and family or forge ahead in business, music, writing, or a profession. The paths are myriad. The results are the same—to remain yourself, living and working and healing, even with cancer, despite cancer.
MARA BUCK writes and paints in a self-constructed hideaway in the Maine woods. Her novel Highway To Oblivion was short-listed for The Faulkner-Wisdom Competition, with recent first prizes from the F. Scott Fitzgerald Museum, The Binnacle, and Intergenerational. Other writing appears in literary journals and in numerous print anthologies. Her art has been showcased in solo exhibitions in Mexico and the US, with examples in public and private collections. She is the creator of the proposed gallery-sized installation “A Year In Oblivion,” comprising 365 works on 52 salvaged doors, of which these examples form a small part.