A lot of my creative work comes to me in dreams.
This was no different, but when you are diagnosed with cancer, time opens into liminal space. What you dream at night in the playground of the subconscious and what you dream in the center of your heart become entangled.
These are the dreams you hear when the ocean crashes against the rocks, or the wind whispers through the pines.
The crows carry these dreams in their abrasive caw caw from some high branch, irritating you out of the waking illusion that there is time enough for all of this.
These are the dreams that bullfrogs croak through the woods at your window at night, we know, we know, we know.
How could I not know?
This summer started out like many others. Better, even. The kids and I had already spent many barefoot days traipsing over the gently thawing earth in order to get a head start on our summer feet. As usual,spring hung on like an angsty and spurned lover, finally dissolving in a flurry of white apple blossoms in the ultimate alchemy of grief. Little did I know how much I would learn from this process of swift, certain transformation. For just like that, summer arrived, wild and free as ever. I’d been monitoring horseshoe crab mating activities with distracted bemusement (the kids had become obsessed with them during early trips to the beach) and was spending most of my time gearing up to run another session of the artist residency program I created during the initial season of the pandemic (in lieu of getting a dog), when, as the old-timers say, the winds changed.
Within a week of discovering the lump—found while performing the annual trying-on-of-bathing-suits ritual, no less—I was told I had breast cancer and would face an imminent double mastectomy and reconstruction, along with months of intensive treatments. It is not an exaggeration to say my entire worldview was dashed, as were my summer plans.
It was here that the dream appeared, bold and unapologetic as summer itself.
I don’t remember it in its entirety—or much else that happened in the weeks between diagnosis and surgery, for that matter—but I do recall I was standing in my yard and someone was asking where I live.
Instead of pointing to my house, adjacent, I struggled to formulate an answer. Maine? Somewhere near the coast, but in the pines? Another Me appeared, bare-chested. Neither of us had the cancer carved from our bodies just yet.
I live where I am, she told me.
A smattering of twigs fell at our feet, landing in a patterned array. Inside these shapes were my insides. Though I had been truly and deeply unhappy for years—despite the cheerful activities, the horseshoe crabs, the summer feet—I now wanted desperately to live. I saw pictures of things I knew I had never admitted to myself or anyone else. Peering down at my body, also bare-chested, I saw not breasts but darkly carved wooden doors: two sentinels guarding the portal to my inner landscape.
Me and the Other Me cried together, wondering why we had been told to hide this part of ourselves.
There was more to the dream, but it’s lost to me now. Once you hear the words that you have cancer—the unimaginable words that never quite feel like they could be referring to you—you cannot unhear them. There is a threshold you pass over and you will never be the same.
This dream was kind of like that.
And so I did what I have always done, which is heed the vision and get to work.
The art that came out of these experiences—a mixed-media photography and oil painting series, v e s s e l, as well as a new venture called S | G | L w o r k s that emerged as a greater container to hold not only this series but others—speaks to the dream wisdom that appeared during this time. Moving naturally between the aesthetic and energetic realms, these projects feel pulled from the same liminal, imaginary thread connected to the collective dream we all know deep down:
the dream to live well
the best life we can,
while we can.
As fate would have it, my trips to the beach and the artist residency this summer fell away, and every conversation with my kids became a kind of lullaby imbued with the sense that I was always saying goodbye. My cancer had formed directly over my heart, and here it was breaking again. Still, not all was lost: The ocean continued to crash against the rocks. The wind to whisper through the pines. There was a message coming through that I needed to let the energies of this experience do the transformational work they were clearly calling to do.
As I embarked upon the v e s s e l series, the most dangerous move seemed to center my breasts. To make them large, unapologetically asymmetrical and strange. Unapologetically visible. This move was, however, not as dangerous as cancer. And emboldened by the sudden freedom this realization afforded, I allowed the breasts on my canvases to become like the doors from the dream: portals to the inner world. I relearned their contours and felt like I was walking the surface of the moon.
Why had they been covered up for so much of my life?
When had they become anything other than mine?
Over and over I traced their lines with my brush, recalling the freedom of childhood and my un-self-conscious nakedness. The complicated, animal-like nourishment of my babies with these vessels. The times they were handled roughly, carelessly, tenderly; when they were cherished and when they were forgotten. Sometimes I painted shirtless, trying to evoke memories of freedom and uncomplicated joy. At what point, I wondered, had I started to believe that these breasts, this landscape, this body, this freedom to create my own meaning had to be covered up?
I sang while I worked. Other times I painted in silence.
Moving swiftly through grief can be dangerous territory. But my time in the studio soon became a deeper exploration of self-love and healing. Working through the creative process I felt strongly that these are things we all need and we all forget, and things these works would offer. Inside each step of their making—and in active defiance against every force that makes us feel small, that predetermines our value, that limits our freedom to choose our own meaning—they’ve been imbued with blessings that support the inner landscapes that make us all who we really are.
In truth, the female breast has always evoked fascination and exploration.Laden for eons with complex identity politics, they’ve been culturally defined along lines of gender, sexuality, reproduction, aesthetics, form, function, and, most objectifyingly (and dangerously) of all, worth.
By centering the breasts as subjective forms in these new works, I consciously invite the viewer to step closer and engage with these unseen values that arise:
What comes up as you regard them? Are they
The feelings evoked by these forms are in fact where we begin. And this seems like a radical choice in and of itself:
to go beyond what we think and land where we feel.
The etymology of the word vessel originates from the “late Latin vascellum ‘small vase or urn,’ and also ‘a ship’”—a place to hold that which we most cherish, as well as a means to move forward.A place of flowers, beauty, grief and ashes, letting go, and charting a new course. As such, the breasts in this series are uncovered. They are not uncomplicated, but they are free. They are sites of reclamation:of our dreams and our freedom to choose what we want and what we love. They are as much yours as they are mine. The human breast is iconic in this way. Surrounded by symbols—my secret messages to you and to the universe—these forms are here to remind you that your worth is all your own. Your form, your dreams, your inner landscapes: They are worthy beyond measure. And they are yours to define.
It is like this that we enter together into the landscape where dreams reside, where we think less and feel more. These talismanic works are meant to be encountered at home, every day, in the familiar spaces of our daily lives. An ally through tough transitions and a cheering squad for our hard-wrought wins.
We know, we know, we know, they say, and offer something that it took cancer for me to know myself.
They call the inner landscapes out into the light and allow us to wander through them: the haunted halls we never dared look at before, the rooms packed with memories, sensory experiences, waves of emotion, work, worry, ingenuity, embrace. Dreams of the night and dreams of the heart. Dreams of the everyday that we all share: to live well and authentically, the best life we can, while we can.
And as for the chant of the bullfrogs, I sing with them now. I hold the children close. And I let loose the dreams of my heart, wild and free. I live where I am, and for me there is exactly no other way to be.