Out of the shadows

Artist who survived breast cancer heals emotional wounds by confronting physical scars


Kathy Hird Wright

A jet-black room and one light. Her heart races. Short breaths. Then deep breaths.

From where she is standing, cloaked comfortably in shadow, the woman steps forward. Into the light now.

In a mirror positioned near the camera, she sees herself. Skin, moles, tendons, bones. A familiar map, but now, somehow, foreign.

She follows veiny tributaries to a crimson line that crosses her chest from breastbone to underarm. She touches the vacant, scarred terrain.

Overcome with anguish, she weeps.

She covers her remaining breast with a cupped hand, turns her head and takes a picture.

She doesn't yet grasp the photo's implications.

Days later, Lawrence artist and breast cancer survivor Kathy Hird Wright pinned the self-portrait to her living room wall and gasped.

"My first impression when I saw the picture was, 'Oh my God! How beautiful,'" she says in drawn-out, wonder-filled syllables. "And then I went, "Oh my God, that's me! Wow."

An art exhibit, performances and workshops have been scheduled at the Lawrence Arts Center during October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The project is called "Healing through the Arts." It begins Monday, when an exhibition of art by cancer survivors, friends of cancer patients and those interested in healing opens at the arts center, 940 N.H. The show will be on display in the center's lobby and hallways. An opening reception will be from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. "Dangerous Curves: Breast Cancer Journeys" -- a multimedia performance featuring the live music of Kelley Hunt, the poetry of Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg and the choreography of Candi Baker danced by the Prairie Wind Dancers -- will be at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 22-23 in the arts center's theater. Tickets are $15 for the public and $5 for cancer survivors. For tickets or more information, call 843-2787.

Community workshops

  • "The Healing Power of Color" Color Playshop, Shifra Stein, 10 a.m.-noon Saturday
  • Creating the Watercolor Journal, Shifra Stein, 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Saturday
  • "The Wild, the Difficult and the Beautiful," Writing Our Breast Cancer Journey, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, 10 a.m.-noon Oct. 16
  • Collaging Our Journeys, Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, 1 p.m.-3 p.m. Oct. 16
  • "Celebrate Your Life through the Gift of Movement: Exploring the Mind-Body Connection," Candi Baker, 5:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m. Oct. 19
  • "Healing through Music and Song," Kelley Hunt, 10 a.m.-noon Oct. 23
  • "The 'ART' of Healing," Cathy Ledeker, 9:30 a.m.-noon Oct. 30

Most workshops are $30 for the general public and $5 for cancer survivors. For more information or to make reservations, call 843-2787. Turning Point workshops Turning Point: The Center for Hope and Healing, a Kansas City gathering place for individuals, families and friends living with cancer and other serious or chronic illnesses, will offer the following free workshops:

  • "Tending the Spirit: The Art of Self Care," Cathy Pendleton, 5:30 p.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday
  • "Jin Shin Jyutsu: An Introduction," Liz Paugoulatos, 5:30 p.m.-7 p.m. Oct. 12

"For me, that photograph is about hope, of coming out of the darkness and finding my heart, which is alive, well and kicking, thank you," Wright says, laughing boisterously.

She laughs often these days. Thirteen years after deciding a mastectomy was her best shot at surviving cancer, Wright finally mourned the loss of her breast on May 22. That day, she spent two and a half hours in the isolation of her rural Lawrence photography studio heaving a weightless weight off her chest.

She named the cathartic image "The Heart of a Survivor" -- upon closer examination she noticed a heart-shaped shadow where her hand meets her chest -- and, with newfound trepidation, offered it to organizers of "Healing through the Arts," a breast cancer awareness project at the Lawrence Arts Center.

It spoke so powerfully to organizers that it became the signature image on publicity for the monthlong event, which includes community workshops, a multimedia performance and an art exhibit.

In their own words
A large-scale print of Wright's photo will hang in the exhibition alongside paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures by cancer survivors, people who have lost friends and family to the disease and those interested in healing issues. Most of the artists have written statements that will accompany their work.

Their words are honest, hopeful and, often, heart-rending.

"Without art I just don't know what would have happened to me my whole life," writes Betty Milliken, a Lawrence nonagenarian who had a radical mastectomy 28 years ago. During her treatments, she began making faces from grapefruit skins and magazines. "They were my children and my family, and I was surrounded by them all the time I was healing."

Lawrence artist Joelle Ford created the sculpture "She Has Thoughts But Cannot Speak" in honor of her mother, Kathryn Doris Packwood Smith, who died in 1995.

"My mother died of an inoperable brain tumor following a mastectomy," Ford writes. "The tumor progressed rapidly. My once beautiful, talented and very verbal mother was left speechless and immobile."

Michaela Groeblacher painted "Aundula" in memory of a dear friend who died of cancer after having two children.

"Aundula, my best friend, was 30 years old and pregnant with her first child (a son) when she found a lump in her breast. She tried to ignore it," Groeblacher writes. "Two years later, her daughter was born. By that time, the cancer had started to attack the lymph nodes.

"About five years of radical surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation treatments followed, interrupted by the discoveries of new cancerous growths in the bones, the lungs and eventually in most internal organs.

"Aundula died, 38 years old, leaving behind the two biggest reasons she wanted to live. She was a great mom."

Aundula's story underscores the importance of prevention, says Candi Baker, a breast cancer survivor and co-organizer of the project.

"My breast cancer was caught by a mammogram. I had no lump; I had nothing," says Baker, who choreographed "Dangerous Curves: Breast Cancer Journeys," the project's multimedia performance. "Had I not had that mammogram, a few years later I probably would have found a lump and it probably would have been in my body more completely."


Michaela Groeblacher painted "Aundula" in memory of her best friend, who died of breast cancer after having two children. The painting is part of an exhibition that opens Monday for "Healing through the Arts," a breast cancer awareness project at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.
photo Commentary: Michaela Groeblacher on "Aundula."

Keeping busy
Wright, who studied metalsmithing and photojournalism at Kansas University and runs Hird Wright Design Studio from a converted barn behind her home northwest of Lawrence, credits a mammogram for saving her life as well.

It was the fall of 1991, and she was living in Seattle. She had waited longer than normal that year to go in for her mammogram. During the procedure, the technician spotted an abnormality she didn't recognize. Curious, she magnified the section.

"It was an area about that big," Wright says, forming her fingers into a mass the size of a plum. "And it had little, tiny pin points. They were calcifications."

"(That technician) saved my life," Wright continues. "Had she been in a hurry, I would not be sitting here today, 13 years later, in my horse barn in Lawrence, Kansas, a half mile from where I grew up. I just feel so incredibly blessed."

She decided, on her 43rd birthday, that undergoing surgery to remove her right breast was the next logical step. Afterward, Wright says, she fell through the cracks. Unaware of aftercare options or support groups, she busied herself with her work as a photographer and mother of two daughters. She went through a painful divorce, moved cross-country, got remarried and was widowed seven months later.

Through all of this, it never occurred to Wright that she hadn't dealt with the loss of her breast.

"There were too many other things happening," she says. "'Cut the sucker off' was my attitude. A lot of bravado, and bravado does not get us anywhere."

Following her creative voice

Now, Wright says, she's a work in progress. Since that pivotal day in her darkened studio, she's been learning things about herself she never understood before. And she owes most of her progress to a single photograph.

"There's almost a defiance in that jawline," she says. "There's a power there that I had never been able to see in myself because I can't see what other people see.

"There is a delicate, fragile side, but there's also an internal strength that I did not know I had. I did not know what it looked like. It shows to me what is in the heart of a survivor."

Wright's most sincere hope is that her photograph will help other survivors find strength and beauty in themselves.

"The loss of a breast does not mean the loss of self," she says. "It means the loss of a mammary gland; it means the loss of some things, but it does not have anything to do with loss of self. And some women are devastated by it."

The key, Wright has found, is for every woman to listen to the creative voice within herself, whether it's telling her to paint a picture, build a building or plow a garden.

"I believe that every one of us is instilled with a creative voice, and to deny that voice causes us pain," she says. "Creativity is a force that inspires you to do something. My life has gotten so much better because I've listened to that."


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