Casts that celebrate survival

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Like women everywhere, some are curvy and some are streamlined. They line up as if on parade, showing off their individuality, making statements, displaying their different claims on magnificence, showing the mileage they rack up from experiences lived with more still to come. 

To create this scene, gauze embedded with plaster was dipped in water, then carefully, compassionately even, laid piece by piece, dripping across each woman's upper front torso to capture her unique shape. Five of the resulting casts were then artistically transformed to represent their individual journeys with breast cancer. 

"Solidarity and Survivorship," part of a larger Oak Park Art League (OPAL) exhibit, "We Are Enough," contains these casts along with those of five snowboard athletes and a photographer provided by Keep a Breast Foundation. The casts are decorated by OPAL artists, many touched by breast cancer in some way. The designs are diverse, ranging from small tiles imprinted with the faces of female warriors that form a type of armor, to soft horsehair with gold leaf, to varying styles of paint and collage. 

One breast cancer survivor has a cast in the show and also made her own artistic contribution. Mary Anne Mohanraj is an English professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, an author and a new Oak Park Public Library trustee. In February 2015, she was diagnosed by mammogram at age 43 with Stage 2 breast cancer. Although her prognosis was good, she underwent five months of chemotherapy, a lumpectomy, radiation and an additional year of follow-up infusions. During treatment, she missed little work, but ongoing fatigue from treatment negatively affected her early elementary school-age children and her writing. 

"If you focus on what you lost, it's not so helpful," she said. "I do better when I'm communicating about it, especially to people who are going through it." 

Pressed leaves and flowers, plus lines of her poetry ("Thunderstorms, yes, the drops hammer against the windshield ...") peek through on a blue background covering her cast. 

"I wrote poems during treatment, and gardening was a solace," Mohanraj continued. "The exhibit is important because it destigmatizes something that shouldn't have stigma — women's health." 

Andi Cohen-Agrimonti went a different route when she was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer in 2001. Then a behavioral therapist with Chicago Public Schools, she opted for a double mastectomy and chose to not have reconstructive surgery because of concerns over the health risks of breast reconstruction at the time, as well as the message it would send to her three pre-adolescent sons. 

Now age 65, Cohen-Agrimonti volunteers at Hephzibah Children's Association and Maryville Crisis Nursery, substitutes in her previous post at CPS, and babysits her grandchildren. For her, the exhibit has brought up a lot of memories and led to insights about body image. 

"Part of my willingness to do this is that a former colleague, facing mastectomy, wanted to see my scar," she said. "The cast is just beautiful. I feel very connected to it. No one will notice the scar. What I love is how, among the other casts, it shows such community — all these people facing these challenges." 

OPAL Executive Director Julie Carpenter matched up member artists with survivors. Carpenter conducted interviews with the survivors. Artists then used this information to transform the casts. Jackie Lakely was paired with Cohen-Agrimonti and found it to be a very intimate experience. 

"Andi had a double mastectomy just like my mother had back in the early 1980s," Lakely said. "It was entirely about honoring her by painting and collaging the things that bring her joy and to celebrate coming out on the other side of all she endured in the years since her diagnosis." 

Lakely hand-crafted leaves from crepe paper, painted with watercolor and acrylic, and used collage and image transfer to create a piece steeped in greenery, punctuated with a bicycle. 

In October, Mohanraj was given the green light for yearly follow-up mammograms — normal protocol for healthy women. She still has reconstructive surgery scheduled to even out her breast shape and size. Her "Cancer log" is part of her blog at maryannemohanraj.com. 

The exhibit ends Friday, Nov. 3, and is part of a larger effort, Art for Social Change. More: oakparkartleague.org, 708-386-9853. OPAL is located at 720 Chicago Ave. 

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William J. Kosik from Oak Park  

Posted: November 1st, 2017 2:18 PM

Being male and never having had cancer, I can't even guess at what it is like to have breast cancer and all of the challenges, both medical and non-medical, that come with it. From my point of view, all I can say is the women who are involved in making these casts are brave beyond words. I would imagine these casts and the women that made them can bring hope and some optimism for other women who are also facing cancer. Very inspirational article that provides a small, but real, glimpse into these courageous women's lives.

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