Changed Perspectives @ Kohler Arts Center

Changed Perspectives exhibition installation
@ JM Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI, December 2010
Surivor Janine Bergeron's digital photos with listening station
@ JM Kohler Arts Center, Sheboygan, WI, December 2010
Our collaborative project with the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in nearby Sheboygan, Wisconsin, resulted in an exhibition titled Changed Perspectives. It explores the world view of a dozen cancer survivors forever altered by their experience with the c-word. Yvonne Montoya, Amy Horst and the Kohler staff designed the installation to include shadow box assemblages of the snapshot size prints by the survivor/participants whose subject matter ranged from intensely colorful flowers and trees to ethereal lake, cloud and land-scapes as well as portraits of family and friends. The images had meaning to the individual who made the image way beyond what could be read using the standard art methods which are most often based on formal elements rather than narrative. Listening stations positioned throughout the gallery enable viewers to hear each survivor/participant reflect, in their own words, on their cancer experience and their photos. We made portraits of six of the participating survivors, which are also on display. The show was scheduled to open with a reception and program on December 12, 2010. The Sheboygan Press had even written a preview! Unfortunately, a record-breaking blizzard forced the Kohler Arts Center to close for the first time in five years! The event which was to include a program and refreshments and has been rescheduled for January 20, 2011, 6-8 pm. The show received a brief mention in the Chicago Tribunean extensive rumination by Domenica Schiro on examiner.com and a review in the Shepherd Express.

When we viewed the show after the blizzard cleared, one of the Kohler security guards recognized us and asked if we had had cancer. Her husband died of cancer 10 years ago and she still felt changed by the experience and found the exhibition bringing back memories and issues. Our experience with cancer was through our mothers. John's mother had been an American Cancer Society volunteer for decades delivering wigs and medical supplies to cancer patients throughout Manitowoc County. Julie's mother had cancer, but did not survive.

When the doctor enters the examining room and orders more tests, everything feels and looks different. Hearing the surgeon say "your mom has a very very bad cancer" that January day in 2007 instantly changed our daily routine. From that moment on, our days included accompanying mom to her appointments for radiation, Chemo, blood tests, CT scans, banana-flavored Barium shakes and the world of DPOA and DNR forms. The news of the cancer came as a shock--there had been little warning. When mom heard the diagnosis she whispered, "I don't have that." But she did and in less than a year's time she was gone.

The following summer, the Kohler invited us for a residency to collaborate on a digital photography project scheduled for the fall of 2010. It would be for cancer survivors in the community who had wanted more art in their lives as part of an ambitious program called Connecting Communities funded through the National Endowment for the Arts.  The Kohler has marvelous gallery spaces and an inspiring and always excellent artistic vision rare for a small Midwestern city. With the help of the Sheboygan County Cancer Care Fund and Tim Renzelman (a survivor himself) participants were gathered.

At our first meeting in late August 2010, we gave a slide talk in the Kohler's beautiful auditorium declaring "You are an artist!" and invited surivors to collaborate with us on a project "to make photos reflecting your view of life." The images would be exhibited at the Kohler along with our photographs in December. We showed participants examples of our portrait photographs as well as work by artist/cancer survivors Corinne Day, the fashion photographer who died just days later from her brain tumor and whose book Diary reflected her cancer experience though self-portraits in the hospital, Jo Spence whose breast cancer turned her from artist to heath-care activist and photo-therapist, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard whose cancer inspired his Family Album of LucyBelle Crater series of portraits of his friends wearing grotesque masks.

Survivorship: Through the Lens workshop 
in the JM Kohler Arts Center Breezeway, 10.30.2010

The Kohler's staff and volunteers worked further with participants to help them use their digital cameras and post images to flickr and the Surivorship: Through the Lens group that had been established. We studied the images as participants posted them then chose six people to photograph. We based our choices of location and content on the images we studied on flickr. The survivors had been scanned, probed, poked, tested and surgically altered during their cancer treatments and they stood bravely before our static and slow 8x10 view camera on its wooden tripod. We felt a sense of gravity as we worked with each person to capture them on film and produce as monumental size print (50x40") as we could given our resources.

Photographing Vicki in the park 9.25.2010

Vicki standing in yoga pose in environmental
park, Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010
9.25.2010 - Vicki took walks in the park regularly and had completed her Master's thesis on the breeding bird communities in the nearby floodplain. She posted haunting images of the park on flickr which she wrote eloquently about. Since her cancer diagnosis and treatment, she found even more comfort in the park. We talked about her practice of T'ai Chi and yoga, which she teaches to other cancer survivors. “If one can fix one's gaze on the light at the end of the tunnel, treatment can be endured.”

Photographing Tammy at
her mom's house 10.10.2010
Tammy (middle) with her sisters Kathy (L)
and Debbie (R) at their mother's condo
during a Sunday Packer game,
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010
10.10.2010 - Tammy and her two sisters gathered at their mom's new condo for the Sunday afternoon Packer game. Their father had passed away from cancer a few years ago  and knowing their grandmother had breast cancer, the sisters underwent genetic testing only to discover all three carried the BRCA2 gene. Four years ago Tammy's diagnosis was Stage II and was treated successfully. Then her younger sister was diagnosed with Stage 1 and her youngest sister was clear. "Cancer is a nasty thing" their mom told us. “You realize life is short—you appreciate the people around you,” Tammy added. Tammy posted whimsical almost humorous pictures of toads and garden ornaments on flickr and one portrait of her with her mom and sister taken when they gathered together to watch the Packer game at her mom's new condo. It struck us because it reflected the warmth and closeness the women shared increasingly since sharing their multiple cancer experiences.

Photographing Joanne 
in her backyard 10.10.2010
Joanne in her garden,
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010
10.10.2010 - Joanne collaborated with her husband to design and maintain their backyard garden, which felt like a sanctuary. She was so involved in her volunteer work that she paid little attention to her symptoms. When finally diagnosed with Stage III cancer 4-1/2 years ago, she underwent intensive chemo and survived it. She kept a journal written in elegant script and illustrated with color snapshots mapping her experiences including a head shaving party during chemo. “You’re thankful for what you’ve got. It can all be gone pretty quickly,” she said. For the Kohler project, she concentrated on photographing hands and feet and posted them on flickr. "I am also a 38 year Rheumatoid Arthritis survivor after being diagnosed at the age of 19," she wrote. "My deformed hands (and feet) are as much a part of me as is any other part of my body. People often comment to me how surprised they are at all I am able to accomplish with these twisted, gnarled hands."
Photographing Dave 
at Matthews Oncology, 10.14.2010
Dave in cancer clinic waiting room,
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010

10.14.2010 - Dave met us in the waiting room at the cancer clinic, which had been newly remodeled. He had spent a great deal of time sitting there before treatments 10 years ago. "I'm still here and some of them aren't," he said of the people he'd met. While waiting he said he'd close his eyes, tip back his head and think, "I'll go somewhere else." Getting cancer was a life-changing event but, "I can't say I really notice the sunsets more now. I noticed them before and I liked them. I didn't have to get cancer to notice them." We were struck by his "treatment buildings" images posted on flickr so decided to photograph him there.
Photographing Dr. Corrigan 
at the Prevea Clinic, Plymouth, WI, 10.22.2010
Dr. Corrigan in procedure room decorated
with his framed photograph, 
Plymouth, Wisconsin, 2010
10.22.2010 - Dr. Corrigan’s framed color photographs were displayed around the sleek new clinic housing his practice in Plymouth. He self-diagnosed his cancer in 2006 at age 42 then began photographing and writing poetry during his treatment and recovery. “Photography just kind of opened my eyes,” he wrote recently. Struck by the intensity of a medical professional knowing that something was wrong but having to endure the protocol of treatment having a deeper knowledge of the implications struck us. We decided to photograph him at the new clinic where both his profession and avocation could be visible. His images posted on flickr are lush and sometimes haunting studies of trees and some of them are framed and on display at the clinic. He photographed the the participants at one of our workshops and posted them too.
Photographing Lucy at home 11.5.2010
Lucy with her snapshots,
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, 2010
11.5.2010 - Lucy’s brother called her Lulu. He died of cancer more than 50 years ago. She found his memory comforting when she was diagnosed with cancer herself two years ago. She recounted his "journey with cancer" while showing us her old snapshots, which she stored in neat envelops in a box covered in floral fabric. JMKAC staff and volunteers scanned and uploaded the snapshots to flickr.  “Looking back at these pictures brings tears, happy tears. In my mind, it was like my brother was here.” We made a video of Lucy telling his story which will be included in the exhibition.

P.S. While in Sheboygan after our meetings, workshops and photo sessions, we revisited our favorite eateries including Schultz's and Jume's (with their mid-century lunch counters) as well as checking out more contemporary dining spots such as Field to Fork and the Kohler's own cafe. We hadn't strolled the boardwalk in many years so checked it out on a Sunday afternoon and later found Toy's Grocery on the north side of town on the way back to Manitowoc and stocked up on olive oil, rice, soy sauce, sandalwood soap and Serbian jam!


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