Interdisciplinary artist Julia Kim Smith struck up a fast friendship with fellow artist Francesca Danieli, a celebrated collage-maker in 2002, when the women, who both had pre-first-grade daughters at Bryn Mawr, met at their girls’ soccer game and realized they were both professional creatives building life and work in Baltimore. They began attending each other’s shows. In 2004, Julia, a Baltimore Fishbowl resident artist, invited Francesca, and writer David Beaudouin, to collaborate on a video called “One Nice Thing,” shot at that year’s Democratic National Convention — Julia says it posed the plucky question, “Can one party say one nice thing about the opposition and really mean it?” The film screened at White Box in New York as part of the “Six Feet Under: Make Nice” exhibition.
That same year Francesca’s breast cancer returned for the third time. Two years later, she died at 52. Though their close friendship was tragically short-lived, Franscesca and Julia’s most emotionally daring collaboration endures today. An evolution of Francesca’s photography exhibition—displayed at MICA and the Creative Alliance, and posthumously at Centerstage—which documented 10 women with metastatic breast cancer, 100 Survivors invites women with breast cancer to photograph and write about themselves according to an itemized list of “tags”–starting with a close photo of the face–in an empowering and expressive gesture that speaks less of happy endings than complex and truthful present-tense resolve. (Please scroll down to see the photos.)
We talked to Julia about the conceptual series that lives on.
Tell me what moves you most about 100 Survivors — and how did the idea emerge/expand out of your two-person collaboration?
Francesca and I hoped the project would give her and all the women in the project some power and control over what was going on… Many of the photos appear mundane on the surface but function on a deeper, metaphoric or symbolic level when paired with the writing. I think that’s what makes the work powerful and moving.
Are the women who submit photos non-artist civilians for the most part — where the creative project is concerned, what tends to be the most significant challenge for them?
A few of the women are artists (Francesca, Carole Jean, Ilene, Charlotte) but most aren’t. The biggest challenge, for the non-artist, is to not obsess over creating “Art” with a capital “A” and to simply document their own lives at time when they are vulnerable. Photograph and write about what they know.
What did you and Francesca expect would be the most important outcome (or emotional payoff) of each woman’s self-portrait shoot?
The first tag, 1. my face (daily), is probably the hardest to shoot and the one most women flinch at. Facing one’s own face, literally facing one’s own face, is just hard! Women tend to be critical of their own faces and bodies. We hoped the tag would lead women to really look at themselves with an unflinching gaze and accept. Many did.
You currently have 31 photographer participants, correct? When you reach 100 will you begin again?
It’s 30 — we are checking on one woman’s release form. I can’t even contemplate reaching 100 women. Francesca and I almost randomly came up with a title for the project, 100 Survivors. It doesn’t matter if we get there. What matters is the women and what they choose to document. Hope that makes sense. I work with all the women — I can’t think of them as numbers.
Any advice to breast cancer survivors who want to participate but feel timid?
Most of the women who start the project begin by announcing they aren’t very good at photography. I encourage them to shoot a lot and edit later — digital cameras, cell phone cameras have made photography more accessible.
What has feedback been like from women with cancer?
We’ve heard from women who either have been to the exhibitions or visited the website that 100 Survivors fills a void; it is what they need to get through the night.
Have you seen other artists work in response to illness, in ways that inspire you?
Writers inspire me: Barbara Ehrenreich and Peggy Orenstein. In Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America, Ehrenreich recounts her own experience with breast cancer. “Breast cancer, I can now report, did not make me prettier or stronger, more feminine or spiritual,” writes Ehrenreich. “What it gave me, if you want to call this a ‘gift,’ was a very personal, agonizing encounter with an ideological force in American culture that I had not been aware of before — one that encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.” Orenstein, the author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, today writes about body image issues — in one piece, she critiques and questions the sexualization of breast cancer awareness movements. In the late 90s, she published in The New York Times a straightforward journal detailing her experience dealing with breast cancer at 35.”
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