Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Hollis Sigler: Painting Hope On Canvas

On the wall of deadly silence about the disease,
I aimed to hang my Breast Cancer Journal.
This work was an outcry.
~ Hollis Sigler

In 1985, Hollis Sigler, an artist in Chicago, learned she had breast cancer. Her cancer, it seems, was passed on to her through the mysteries of genetics—from her mother, who died of the disease in 1995, through her grandmother and great grandmother. After experiencing a second recurrence but before the disease claimed her life in March 2001, Sigler created a series of more than 100 artworks titled "Breast Cancer Journal: Walking with the Ghost of My Grandmothers". The series was reproduced in a book, Hollis Sigler's Breast Cancer Journal (Hudson Hills Press, 1999), the image for which is shown above. The book includes a biographical essay by art critic James Yood, as well as a few words by Sigler about the history of her artwork. Noted breast cancer specialist Dr. Susan M. Love contributed the foreword.

The artwork — oils on canvas or board, oil pastels on paper, cut paper collages, cut paper drawings, watercolor monotypes, lithographs — bear expressive titles that clue you in to the stories Sigler tells and the emotions she's setting loose, if not entirely freeing:  "Taking Stock of Her Situation", "Feeling Robbed", "My Body Is No Longer a Temple", "Seeking Out an Island of Peace", "I'd Make a Deal with the Devil", "I'm Holding Out for Victory, Winning Is My Greatest Desire", "The Beginning of the End", "In Spite of All She Rises in the Morning With Joy in Her Heart". 

It's critical to remember, when looking at the art, that Sigler, as Yood says in the book's introduction, "is not an artist because she has breast cancer; she is an artist with breast cancer."

Sigler's entire career has been a testament 
to the communicative graces of art, 
and in the Breast Cancer Journal she reminds us that art 
can accomplish this in a way that nothing else can, 
and that sometimes, preciously and rarely, 
it will do very much more. 
Sometimes art can be a matter of life and death.
~ James Yood

If you have any experience of cancer at all — and you would be the rare person who does not — you understand, without explanation, the imagery of Sigler's paintings and drawings: the absence of human figures or figures floating above ground like those in a Chagall painting; the single empty chair, or a row of empty chairs; trees without limbs or leaves; wildly out-of-control vines overtaking a decrepit house; a vanity table with its accoutrements of personal grooming; a reflection in a mirror of the person you no longer are, yet you are; a dual landscape, internal and external, of apocalypse, personal effects scattered to the winds: the places where nobody's home. 

Image above left: "I Find Hope on the Horizon of My Tomorrows", original color lithograph, 570mm x 760mm, with text running around central image; 1997; Spaightwood Galleries.

Along the painted frames and on the mats of paintings is text: statistics you can find on your own all too easily, historical information, Sigler's own journal entries, quotes from people who inspired her (Audre Lorde, for example, who also had cancer and wrote The Cancer Journals), words written out, perhaps, to stall if not defeat the enemy residing within.

We are a society that is geared towards words. . . 
My objective is to inform. And I think it counterpoints the visual, 
because the visual always has to do with emotions. It is a way 
 of putting the cause in the work, and making it
 very specific, which makes people notice it.
~ Hollis Sigler

The style, you might notice, is simple but vigorous, somewhat folk art-ish, maybe faux naive. It has the intensity of Frida Kahlo's work. It's the visual rendering of the confessional poet.

What might surprise you is the brightness of the paints, the warmth of the strong colors, what, to me, represents the flip side of the cancer coin, the one you always want to land up: hope.

There's grace in the artwork, and frustration, a sense of rebellion, confrontation, the trauma from disfigurement, the symbols of loss, sorrow, and the knowing that there's no cure. The narrative, though Sigler's, could just as easily be my own, or yours, and so becomes everyone's.

Image: "Walking With the Ghosts of My Grandmothers", 
oil on canvas, 66"x54", with painted frame; 1992


Image at left: Hollis Sigler.

An exhibit of 60+ works appeared recently at the Chicago Cultural Center; the show, which closed April 4, was titled "Expect the Unexpected". A review of the show in Art & Design, illustrated with a dozen images, is here. Another feature, in Medill Reports, is here. A Shore magazine feature on the exhibit is here. Earlier (October 9, 2009 - January 10, 2010), "Expect the Unexpected" was at Rockford Art Museum, in Rockford, Illinois.

Sigler's art is in many private collections, as well as public collections, including those of the Chicago Art Institute, Smithsonian American Art MuseumNational Museum of Women in the Arts, and Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. On the latter site is a video.

The New York Times obituary for Sigler is here.

Dr. Susan M. Love, a preeminent breast cancer specialist, has written, among other books, Live a Little! Breaking the Rules Won't Break Your Health and Dr. Susan's Love's Breast Book

The Society for the Arts in Healthcare, with the co-sponsorship of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, undertook a four-year (1994 - 1997) tour of replicas of a dozen or so of Sigler's drawings and paintings to 24 hospitals. All of those images are in the Journal. The exhibit was "retired" in 1999 to the Lombardi Cancer Center, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, D.C. The paintings and drawings are on permanent exhibition there, in Research Building corridors, levels 3-5.

The Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago carries some of Sigler's work, including works from the Journal, as does Steven Scott Gallery. Many images are on the site of Chicago's Printworks Gallery.

Images of a number of Sigler's works are posted at Breast Cancer Answers Art Gallery.

Sigler was featured in Dr. David Kaminisky's Paint Me a Future, a documentary film about art therapy made in 1999. (I found numerous references to the film but could not locate a trailer for it.)


Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about art at all (other than my husband, ha!), but her work draws me in. Love it.

M.L. Gallagher said...

thank you for this Maureen. I am forwarding your blog to two friends, both of whom are fighting for their lives right now through breast cancer.

Thank you.

katdish said...

What beauty comes thru pain. Thanks, Maureen.

Kathleen said...

This piece was pure art itself Maureen. It felt written on creamy linen with gilt edges. Making the ugly beautiful. "hope, landing up"

sarah said...

such powerful beautiful art.

Nanci Hersh said...

Following my own cancer diagnosis I found Hollis Sigler's work. It informed and inspired my own work as an artist and cancer survivor and I went on to co-create and curate the Art of Survival at Herspace in West Long Branch, NJ. Thank you for remembering a wonderful and courageous woman.

Billy Coffey said...

What a statement she makes, and what wonderful art from a wonderful woman.

Terresa said...

Beautiful artwork. What a legacy. Breast cancer has touched everyone I know, either through a mom, sister, friend, or grandmother.

Thank you for this insightful post.

S. Etole said...

she gave quite a gift ...