Today marks my one-year anniversary of being cured of breast cancer. Technically, it’s the one year anniversary of getting a double mastectomy; it would be another week before I found out that the surgery was successful and there was no evidence of disease (NED).
I remember how terrified I was the day before surgery. I couldn’t concentrate, I cried several times throughout the day and I felt such a heavy weight hanging over me. Up until then, the idea of having breast cancer felt abstract; I had no palpable masses or any other visible signs of the disease. Knowing that I had to walk into an operating room the next day made the reality of diagnosis frighteningly real.
Somehow the next morning, I was able to shake off most of those feelings and walk into hospital with a relative feeling of calm, accompanied by my sister. My medical care team was wonderful; they were positive and kind and assured me that I would be well cared for. My anesthesiologist had the same first name as my good friend, Tamika, so I took that as a good sign. When the nurses escorted me to the operating room, they were blasting Tina Turner ( I can’t remember the song) but I also saw that as a positive omen.
I woke up from the surgery with slight pain; most of it was in my throat from being intubated for almost four hours. There was a burning sensation across my chest where my breasts once existed but that was quickly alleviated with Tylenol. Once I arrived to my hospital room, I spent the rest of the day processing what happened. There was a mixture of relief that I was finally through surgery and apprehension of whether they got all the cancer out. The attending physician sternly reminded me I wasn’t out of the woods until they got the final pathology report. I was annoyed that he didn’t share the optimistic opinion of my surgeon, who felt certain that my breast cancer wasn’t invasive and was still stage 0.
After an overnight stay and a cheerful visit from my surgeon, who still felt very confident about my prognosis, I was able to go home. For the first few days, I had to learn how to walk without hunching over to instinctively protect my tender chest. With the help of my sister, I threaded and emptied the aggravating drains surgically implanted in my chest to alleviate swelling. Overall, I felt pretty good physically but I was terrified to look at my chest; I wasn’t ready to see the swelling and the scars. When the visiting nurse removed the bandages to examine how I was healing, I always looked away.
A week later, I visited the surgeon’s office to have the drains removed and to get my final pathology report. On the way there, I was tearful and frightened. Because my DCIS was multifocal, I was scared that it had become invasive and I would need to undergo radiation and/or chemotherapy. Thankfully, my boyfriend was calm and very reassuring; he promised me that I would be okay and that we would get through it together.
Once I got to the doctor’s office, the nurse removed the drains (which didn’t hurt but felt very, very weird) and said I could sit up. I still refused to look at my chest and she explained that many women have a hard time getting used to how they look and I should take my time. After that she left, I nervously waited for my surgeon to arrive with my pathology report.
As soon as she walked in, the first thing she said, “Well, you don’t have invasive breast cancer.” My surgeon is very intuitive and can pinpoint with such accuracy the fears most of her patients have when they come in to see her. As soon as I heard that, I breathed a sigh of relief. As she explained the findings of the report, she examined how I was healing and then sat quietly in the chair to let me process everything. Surprisingly, I didn’t start crying like I imagined I would but instead, I finally looked down at my chest and realized I didn’t look as bad as I thought. As I looked at the "new me" my surgeon told me that I was going to feel so much lighter and faster. I had decided to forego reconstruction and opted to remain flat to avoid complications from implants and future surgeries.
As I walked out of the doctor’s office, I did feel lighter with the weight, both physically and emotional, lifted off my chest.
In the weeks and months that followed, I had to adjust emotionally and physically to my new body. Some days are easier than others and I have to remind myself that it’s only been a year since this frightening ordeal started. As I’ve mentioned before, my return to drawing abstract figurative works centered around breast cancer survivorship has been tremendously therapeutic; this practice has helped me see the beauty in the scars and the struggle of illness. I’m reminded how creating art under these circumstances is a form of alchemy; transforming feelings and experiences into a medium that others can experience and relate to.
One of my favorite collections that was born out of this experience is The Four Seasons. They are four abstract figurative line works that represent the complications and the vitality of health, illness and recovery after illness. The red form that represents Fall is like me, flat chested while Winter represents a single mastectomy survivor. The woman who purchased Winter told me she picked that one because their chest looked like hers. Other survivors told me that The Four Seasons made them feel seen; I’m very proud of that. All four of the originals have been sold but I will be making different print versions of this collection. For now, I’m offering a 4-piece collection of postcard prints in my online store. I’m hoping that they will continue to help survivors feel seen and celebrated as they deserve to be.
One year down. Many more to come.
Fourteen years ago I created a painting that was a response to the inadequacies in women’s healthcare. Medea is named after my favorite ancient Greek play of the same name by Euripides. Known for its feminist and political themes, the tragedy was considered to be ahead of its time.
The original painting is 30 x40 inches and is created with watercolor and colored pencil. Medea is split in two to depict the tension between grief and resilience and how these states can overlap. She is also covered in iconography that includes the Adinkra symbol for strength and endurance on her left arm, a tree at her womb to represent reproductive health and and the lightning bolt in her hand to reflect her powers as a sorceress. She is also decorated with various quotes taken directly from the play as well as the line “mule of the earth”, a reference to the quote from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (“Black women are the mules of the earth.”)
In response to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, I’m recruiting Medea in the fight for reproductive justice. Starting today, I will be taking pre-orders for 11”x18” prints of this piece to raise money for the Center for Reproductive Rights. The Center is a global human rights organization of lawyers and advocates that fights to ensure that reproductive rights, including abortion, are protected as fundamental human rights.
My Belle Noir collection is currently on display in Manhattan as part of the Photoville outdoor festival taking place throughout the city. The group exhibition A Time to Laugh, A Time to Dance can be viewed on 1 Manhattan West Plaza from now until November 1, 2022.
Click on the image below to see a short video I took of the display.
It's hard to believe that a year ago today I got that life altering call confirming that my biopsy taken a week earlier was malignant. At 4:30 pm this day last year, I became a breast cancer patient.
What followed for the next few months of my summer was numerous trips to the radiology center for MRIs, which led to more biopsies, so many calls to my insurance company to figure what was covered, switching health insurance twice to get the right care, copious research,running around town to get and copies of images, and then looking for second and third opinions. Within all that, there were times I careened between absolute terror of my diagnosis and relief that I had caught the cancer early.
It's really true when they say a diagnosis like this changes you. While I'm mostly the same person, I've grown in ways that I couldn't have anticipated. These changes include:
One year later, I have so much for which I am grateful. The journey and the healing continues.
This latest piece was inspired by the photography of Judy Dater and Jack Welpott. My photographer friend recommended their photography book Women and Other Visions as source material for models.
I was immediately drawn to the image pictured on page 72 (Wally and Nadine, Aries, France 1973 by Judy Dater) of the two women seated next to each other. Even though they weren't holding hands, they appeared so connected to each other because of how their shoulders, arms and thighs touched. So far all of the abstract figurative pieces that I've worked on have been more focused on singular portraits but I really wanted to depict this feeling of togetherness between two individuals. I emphasized this feeling by showing the two figures conjoined at the shoulder, sharing the same color space, legs intertwined.
The connection between these two individuals feels like a subset of what community care looks and feels like. Community care is more important than ever in these increasingly tumultuous times. As we continue to navigate a pandemic, a swiftly tilting American democracy, an environmental crisis, and so much more, our interdependence and interconnectedness is undeniable.
It's been forever and a day since my last blog post but the past year has been challenging.
A year ago this month, I was diagnosed with DCIS, an early stage form of breast cancer that was caught through a regular screening mammogram. Needless to say, the diagnosis was the scariest thing I ever experienced but thankfully I was successfully treated through surgery in September.
Leading up to my diagnosis and surgery, I was already experiencing burnout from my previous body of work of Inkscape photographs and digital portrait collages. I think the isolation of the pandemic and relying on a computer screen for social interaction made me realize how much I missed holding a paintbrush or a pencil and feeling the texture of cold-press paper on my fingertips. I realized I wanted to go back to painting and drawing again.
My craving to take a new direction with my art came at a time when I was starting a new phase of my life after diagnosis and surgery. Over time, I started developing a style of figurative art drawings and paintings that explore and challenge what it means to feel whole again. What I've been creating has been characterized by loose, overlapping bold lines, full-figured asymmetrical figures and interpretations of mythological beings, and of course, bold color. Honoring and examining my imperfections through painting and drawing has been enormously healing.
I've been composing this email for many months in my head; I was so nervous about divulging such personal news and showing this new change in my practice. While sharing this is deeply personal, it would be impossible for me to move into this new journey without explaining the inspiration behind it.
While I have been publishing my work on Instagram, I plan on restarting my blog to develop a more connected experience with my audience. In the meantime, I've added some of my originals to my online store. Special thank you to my newest collectors who have purchased my new work! Your support means so much.
And thank you for taking the time to read this. I am most grateful. That’s it for now.
One of the goals of my art practice is to discuss the realities about being an artist and to dispel myths. One of the biggest ones that I encounter and one of the ones that I find the most frustrating is when people question why I'm not a a full-time artist (i.e., why I am not making a living as an artist). As if it were that easy.
For those few who are able to make a living off of their work are truly blessed but that isn't true for most artists, as this article written in 2017 points out. Even though it is from 2017, not much has changed in two years.
I have a bread and butter job because I need to pay bills, keep a roof over my head and eat. I often invest my own money in my projects. I've been told that I shouldn't tell people that I have a day job because galleries or other art world entities would look down on me for devoting all of my time to making art. I think this is ridiculous when we live in a country that doesn't support or advocate for artists or we live in a culture where people mock the importance of what we do. While I would love to exclusively create for a living, it's not possible. How I can be creative when I have to worry about surviving? This is a reality for so many artists and I think it's silly to dismiss those who work and still come after their day job to create. That's dedication.
Please keep this in mind the next time you are skeptical at how much an artist charges for their work, their prints, and their labor. Please keep this in mind when supporting women artists, especially Black women artists who have it the toughest out of anyone when it comes to recognition and support for their work.
I am grateful for the support that I get from other artists and patrons who support by purchasing prints or donating to my Patreon/Ko-fi accounts. I am thankful to have people who cheer me on and share what I do with others so that they know about what I do. It means more than you could ever know.
Today I woke up with a craving to see some artwork. After searching around for possible spots to visit on the internet, a family friend send me a suggestion about this small gallery in Sugar Hill, Harlem called Essie Green. Even though it was a bit of a trek from my neighborhood in Queens, I was eager for adventure and a change of scenery and hopped the train into uptown Manhattan.
The gallery is nestled inside a beautiful brownstown on Convent Avenue and I happened to get there when the gallery administrator was arriving with an armful of paintings. The space was intimate and friendly and I found myself in face to face with originals by the likes of Mailou Jones, Romare Bearden and Henry Ossawa Tanner.
In addition to the incredible collection of artwork by the Black Masters, I think one of the greatest assets of the gallery is the owner and the staff. Just as I was getting ready to head out, I got a chance to meet the owner Sherman Edmiston, who's late wife bears the name of the space. At first I was just expected a brief exchange but he insisted I sit down and talk with him to ask me about my background and my art practice. In that quiet and patient conversation with him, I got my an unexpected art education.
After looking at my work on Instagram, Mr. Edmiston asked me what it is that I wanted to do and asked if I considered going to art school. To be honest, I hadn't given it much thought (assuming he was talking about a degree program) and told him how the thought of returning to school and paying for another degree just didn't make me want to consider it. That's when he pointed out that I shouldn't think about it as having to go back to school but rather what I could gain from going to a program. I think my cynicism about higher education programs kept me from seeing it as an opportunity to gain guidance and as a chance of developing one's voice. I had taken a few art classes at the Art Students league (before that, it had been through some community college classes in Michigan) and witnessed teachers delivering blistering and withering critiques of students works, some of them seeming more personal than constructive. A lot of it reminded me of law school, which wasn't one of my happier personal experiences and wouldn't be eager to repeat. But just like law school, apparently having that degree will determine how well you will do in the art world. According to Mr. Edmiston, having that Yale MFA (or from another prestigious program) is a big factor as to whether you'll get the big art sales and shows at the museums. I've heard this before but it was still disappointing because I can't help but think of this as a form of elitism. While he agreed with me that these programs allow you to buy your way into a "special club", it's also an opportunity to get exposure to a good art program and guidance from a mentor that can draw out the uniqueness one brings to their work.
He also went on to say that being "self taught" is a real art-career killer.
But at the end of the day, it's about how you define success. As he also said, it's about what success looks for you and what you want out of your life as an artist.
What stayed with me from our talk was how he described his time with Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden, both of whom he knew personally. He described how they had these intense hunger, obsession with their work. When it came down to pursuing this obsession, nothing else mattered. He told me how both of them it wasn't until they got to the end of their lives that they felt like they were "getting it".He couldn't describe what it was but it just seem like everything was just coming together at this stage of their lives. There was never a fear of getting bored or burnt out.
So what started out as being a simple excursion to a small gallery ended up being an unexpected education.Talking with Mr. Edmiston left me a lot to think about, especially when it comes to my motivations behind why I make this work. I don't see my lack of a formal art degree as a disadvantage or a setback. I've had more opportunities that I could have expected that have included solo shows at galleries and universities or showing my work at the Schomburg Center. I may never sell work for six figures but I don't let that define me.
I do this work because it sustains me and has done so since I first picked up a pencil and crayons as a little girl. I do this work because I'm curious about the world and people and I have something to say. The mediums in which I work may shift but the desire to create is always there. I define my success by my continuing passion to create and how what I do is enough to move people. I may never sell my work for six figures or mingle with art-elite and that's okay.
I'm grateful to Mr. Edmiston for his kindness and patience and for the lesson.
I'm embarking on a new dimension of my Inkscape portraits. A few weeks ago I was inspired by this exhibit at the @posterhouse featuring the beautiful work of Alphonse Mucha. I loved the way his posters centered women and made them look beautiful and powerful against ornate backdrops and graceful #typography. His work inspired me to revisit old #Ebony magazines and from the 70s and to study the ads for #haircare and products geared towards women. The hair care ads stood out to me the mostly because it talked about hair relaxers and how they were supposed to transform a woman's life. I thought it would be interesting to address that notion in a time when Black women are not solely relying on straightened hairstyles to express and celebrate themselves. We continue to experiment with shape, color and textures and I wanted to extend that conversation through the #BelleNoir series that I've been developing.
This is the first image in this new project. The slogan was taken from an ad for Curl Out Relaxer. It's somewhat ironic that the messaging was to suggest that putting harsh chemicals in Black hair was a form of liberation. In response, I decided to use my own model and have her hair take the form of a black and gold #Inkscape defying gravity in the same way that natural, unrelaxed Black hair does.
SOLD! Last week @blackgirlinmaine purchased my piece Soldier of Love (pictured at the bottom) while visiting @tesseraartscollective during their one year anniversary celebration. It’s always a great feeling when one of my works resonates with someone and they want to make space for it in their home. Images from my #BelleNoir series will be on display and available for sale at Tessera Arts Collective until September so go visit!.If you’re interested in purchasing one of the framed images on display there, feel free to DM me.