Sunday, August 25, 2013

Cancer survivor's exhibit at Grossmont College Hyde Art Gallery

Art instructor Stephanie Bedwell

Art instructor Stephanie Bedwell has been sculpting new forms in the two years since she underwent a lumpectomy for breast cancer.  Her current exhibit at the Hyde Art Gallery on the Grossmont College campus offers boat forms, woven from various materials, as metaphors for the fragile vessel that is human life.

Her exhibit, which will remain on view through September 12, has been linked to the campus-wide study of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.  Faculty members from various academic disciplines, including Bedwell, will discuss different aspects of cancer in a lecture series that will overlap the Fall 2013 and Spring 2014 semesters.

“The whole notion of cancer is traumatizing to you unless you find some way to order it, and for me it became a catalyst for change. I got educated about nutrition, and really committed to healthy eating, exercising and stress reduction. … The cancer wasn’t a pleasant experience, but it was a life-altering experience.  I am in a better place than I was before cancer.  It was an opportunity to let everything that is meaningless fall away.”
The boats in her exhibit are “metaphors for some idea of vulnerability, that as we travel through life whether we like it or not, we need to make peace with our temporal nature,” Bedwell said.  “One of the themes that pervades my work is the idea that life isn’t going to end well for anybody – we all die – so how do we live with that vulnerability?   How do you navigate that?   And that is part of the boat idea – how do we navigate this life in such a fragile vessel?”

None of her boats could survive a sea journey, as they are all woven in such a fashion that water could readily penetrate them.   One large sculpture depicts a decaying shipwreck, but rising from it is “this little rickety ladder, and ladders always tend to lead up,” Bedwell said.  “For me it is connecting to my spirituality, connecting to my soul, connecting to that part of me that isn’t in the material world.”

Boats are laden with symbolism in Bedwell’s life.  “My father drowned in a boat,” she said.  “And my husband has had boats all his life.  He has three kayaks and three canoes and then I store my boats in them, much to his dismay.”

Visitors to the gallery will notice that the boats are constructed from “materials gleaned from nature, and bound together with fabric or yarn. I love the process of binding, which is some ways is a metaphor for me. When I bind things together to create a sturdy structure, it feels like I am making something whole.”

Bedwell pointed out that her materials are neither high tech nor costly.  “These are things that I find around anywhere, gather, or am given. This is why this show is titled ‘From This Place,’ because it is from this place on, it is from this place right now.  I look around, see what is grist for my mill, and see what I can use.”

For example, one sculpture utilizes branches gathered from a campground in the Sierras; another utilizes bones that she harvested from a dolphin carcass, and yet another incorporates shale from the White Mountains.   When her son was getting rid of his old Yamaha organ, she disassembled it, and used some of its interior parts.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is so cool;’ I love to find beauty in things that are dismissed,” Bedwell said.  “There is a kind of alchemy for me when I take something that has been thrown away, or tossed, or not considered, and make it into something beautiful.”

Bedwell also utilizes imperfection in her creations, knitting that has suddenly become unraveled, and even a pile of cat hair left on a table by mistake.  “I am an equal-opportunity user,” she said. 

One exhibit box is filled with hearts of various descriptions – “this one with thorns is when we push people away, and the one with holes and burn marks has been through a lot… and I love the idea of imbuing body parts with meaning, message or metaphor.”    

Another box is filled with still little birds – “canaries in coal mines that have been mummified, and bones, and sprouts, so it is like the cycle of life.”

In addition to these subjects, several of Bedwell’s sculptures are of bees.  She explains: “I have been upset about colony collapse.  Having had breast cancer, I’ve gotten to really read a lot about nutrition and environment.   We’re not taking care of ourselves and we are also not taking care of the environment.”

One bee is decoupaged in old maps, covered in beeswax, and has landed on a chunk of asphalt that Bedwell found when workers were digging up her street.  “We are messing up the bees’ navigation with pesticides, and that is why he needs a map all the time,” Bedwell said.

While creating her sculptures, “I am not using any materials that are toxic anymore—for example I don’t use resins, and I am careful about the paints that I use.” 

Accordingly, one of her pieces “was dyed with turmeric, which is a cancer fighter.  I just love that idea.  I put turmeric in my juice every day, so instead of being dyed with something that is toxic, it is dyed with something that is healing.”