Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2018

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The Art of Survival

The picture first caught Susan Strang's eye as she was leafing through Self magazine one day.

Seemingly incorporating elements of photography and oil painting, the portrait depicted a goddess-like figure leaning against a mottled gray wall, her wrap slung aside to reveal a missing breast.

Alongside the picture was a story about two Toronto women with "checkbooks and an attitude," who were using their own money to fight breast cancer. The women had personally commissioned 24 of Canada's top artists to do pieces dealing with breast cancer. And now, they were taking their show on the road.

"I need to know these women," Strang thought.

Strang -- who had recently founded the Las Vegas chapter of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation -- the largest private funder of research dedicated solely to breast cancer in the U.S. -- was on the lookout for innovative ways to educate the public about the disease. Despite the fact that the number of American women suffering from breast cancer had risen from one in 11 to an alarming one in eight in less than two decades, the disease retained an amazingly low public profile, particularly in comparison to that of AIDS.

"The arts have chosen AIDS as a focus, but all around them they're losing friends to breast cancer," Strang says. "It's time to bring some focus to this, too." With its honest portrayal of the effects of breast cancer, and its radical message of action and responsibility, the art exhibit seemed an ideal way to reach people in Las Vegas.

Undaunted by the fact that the Canadian women, Barbra Amesbury and Joan Chalmers, had accepted only two invitations to bring their collection to the U.S., Strang launched a campaign to persuade them to come here. One year, countless phone calls and many hurdles later, Strang's efforts are paying off. On Friday, Las Vegas will become only the third U.S. city to host the critically acclaimed exhibit: "Survivors in Search of a Voice: The Art of Courage."

The 10-day showing of the collection, which Amesbury prefers to call a "monument," kicks off Friday night with a black tie fundraising gala at the Sahara West Library and Fine Arts. During the remaining nine days of the show, a series of lectures and seminars dealing with various aspects of the disease will be offered. All events are open to the public, and admission is free to everything except the black tie gala.

Cancer revealed

The pieces in the exhibit reveal the many faces of breast cancer: shame, fear, anger, disfigurement and death. A life-sized paper mache sculpture depicts a woman kneeling with a butterfly perched atop her fingertips, the pages of her busy calendarbook scattered behind her. A series of bulb-shaped bottles filled with various substances hang from a metal rod, representations of female breasts contaminated by cancer cells.

A sculpture of a willowy woman, her frayed hair flowing behind her, gazes upward in anguish; The method by which the copper wire sculpture was chemically treated to create a patina figuratively duplicated the process of chemotherapy, according to the artist, Dawn McNutt. "I was surprised how similar the processing I used was to breast cancer and at the same time shocked by the knowledge that radiation and chemotherapy are as indiscriminate in their destructive potential as were my acids and chemicals."

The words of breast cancer survivors who inspired the artists hang alongside the works. To some, these personal tales offer even more emotional weight than the art itself. One woman, for example, tells of the horror of discovering she was pregnant after having unknowingly subjected her unborn child to dangerous doses of chemotherapy, and the shame of having to terminate the pregnancy. Another discusses the condescending way her doctor treated her during her disease; Still others recount the pain of having been abandoned by their husbands during the fight of their lives.

The stories brought tears to Strang's eyes when she viewed the exhibit last year in Philadelphia. "I was surprised at how impacted I was," she says. "It's an important work that a lot of people need to see." Amesbury, who has often likened the monument to the AIDS quilt or the Vietnam memorial, agrees. "It's a place of permission," she says. "There's such a hunger in the land to talk and be public about this issue once and for all."

Thoughts become action

Amesbury, a wealthy social activist, and her partner Joan Chalmers -- a philanthropist from a privileged family known for its generous funding of the arts in Canada -- came up with the idea for the monument several years ago after they suddenly realized that they had lost about six friends to breast cancer in as many months. "I said to Joan 'we have to do something,' " Amesbury says. The pair had spent years funding causes ranging from domestic abuse to AIDS; Now they decided to shift their focus to the fight against breast cancer.

"You have 200,000 women living with breast cancer in America today. Around 1.4 million get cancer each year; Half a million die of cancer each year," Amesbury says. "There's a war going on and our casualties are a half a million troops each year."

The women figured art would be their best weapon. "Art has been at the forefront of every revolution," Amesbury says. "Art can say things nobody else can say."

With Chalmers' name and huge amounts of money behind them, the two had few problems drafting some of Canada's finest women artists for their cause. Of the dozens of artists who were approached for the project, only a few in Quebec begged off, with the excuse that "we don't deal with real things," along with another in Toronto who feared that the move would be detrimental to her career. "I later heard she was sorry she didn't do it," Amesbury says. "The artists got treated fabulously well."

In a move unusual in the art world, Chalmers and Amesbury prepaid the artists for their work. They then set about recruiting around 100 breast cancer survivors who would be willing to spend time sharing their experiences with the artists. "For a year, they corresponded, they talked, the women bared their souls, and some of them died," Amesbury says. When the year was up, the artists went back to their studios and set about creating pieces that would give voice to what the women had endured.

Powerful results

Deirdre Hanna, art editor for the Toronto weekly alternative NOW magazine, who reviewed "Survivors" when it appeared in that city two years ago, notes that despite initial concerns on the part of some involved in the project that some of the artists had been too detached in dealing with the subject matter, "there was something that came through on a different level that really made it very powerful."

In fact, when Hanna saw a preview of the exhibit, she was so impressed with it -- aesthetically and emotionally -- that she lobbied to have it run as the magazine's cover story. Later, when she attended the show, and saw women weeping as they made their way through the Royal Ontario Art Museum, she felt "vindicated."

"Aesthetically , the work wasn't melodramatic ... it was quite cool and quite cerebral." Yet, there was an undeniably strong emotional undercurrent, Hanna says. " It was really just such a gut-wrenching show. I've never seen people sniffling in a gallery to that extent."

Such reactions are exactly what Amesbury was aiming for. "We've got to lift the veil of silence and get people talking about this disease," she says. "If people leave this show happy, then I've failed."

Las Vegas-bound

Requests to show "Survivors" have been pouring in from all over the world -- there were 78 invitations from the U.S. alone. But Amesbury and Chalmers have remained highly selective about where they'll go. One reason is the high cost of transporting the pieces; Amesbury estimates that she and Chalmers have already poured $1 million into the show.

Another consideration is the mindset of the groups offering to host the exhibit. A group in Houston, for example, wanted to soften the show's message. "'We don't want to alarm anybody,' " a spokesperson told Amesbury. "Well excuse me," Amesbury replied. "We do want to alarm them."

For Strang, persuading Amesbury and Chalmers to bring their show this far south was no easy feat. For one thing, she needed to come up with 10,000 square feet of space that would be available for the entire 10 days. For another, she had to make a case why Las Vegas should be chosen over, say, New York, Washington D.C. or Chicago.

But amazingly, everything just seemed to fall into place around the end of last year, Strang says. The Las Vegas Art Museum, headed by Sharon King, a breast cancer survivor and an artist, got permission to move into the $13 million museum space on West Sahara -- a perfect venue for the show. And before long, Amesbury, impressed both by "Susan's spunk" and Las Vegas' middle class demographics, finally agreed to bring "Survivors" here -- and in the process, raised the eyebrows of "the veiny-throated elitists."

Says Amesbury: "People in the arts community thought I was crazy," she says. "(But) I'm a populist," she says. "I can't impact people if I'm in the middle of nowhere."

Our city's heightened obsession with the female form offered an added draw. "There are very few places on the planet that glorify the female breast more than Las Vegas," Strang says. A film crew shooting a documentary on the monument's travels will accompany Amesbury to Las Vegas this week; Among the items on their agenda is an interview with the Crazy Girls from the Riviera's topless revue. Says Amesbury: "I want to talk to them about their breasts."