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Press > COLUMBIA DAILY TRIBUNE: Creating an uncommon portrait of courage. By AARIK DANIELSEN Sunday, October 9, 2011

COLUMBIA DAILY TRIBUNE: Creating an uncommon portrait of courage. By AARIK DANIELSEN Sunday, October 9, 2011


On movie screens across the country, Joseph Gordon-Levitt is shaving his head in the name of art, hope, humor and humanity.

As one of the principals in “50/50,” Gordon-Levitt has received rave reviews for his work in a film being lauded by some for daring to approach the topic of cancer with a mixture of charm, gravitas and crass comedy. Those who most appreciate the film say its tone and tactics offer a refreshing change from what they view as a typically heavy-handed way of presenting disease in artistic mediums.

A little closer to home, painter and mixed-media artist Jenny McGee is finding clever ways to express her thoughts about cancer, a subject that for her hits incredibly close to home. Her latest project also includes dispatching with precious strands of hair, albeit a lot less, as McGee seeks to build community and create beauty a few locks at a time.

As part of Artrageous events this weekend, she invited members of the community to donate a mere snippet of hair to an unconventional work of art. Continuing her efforts through the end of the month at her Orr Street studio home, McGee encourages participants to snatch a pair of scissors and literally let their hair down, letting it fall naturally to a canvas she plans to treat as an exhibit of solidarity. In a manner somewhat similar to “50/50,” McGee has designed the work to accommodate both good humor and great hope.

“It is lighthearted in the sense that it is a unique and free expression, but out of the free-flow expression, I hope that a deeper meaning can be extracted and that true solidarity and comfort will somehow also be communicated,” she said this week in an email.

Although there is an element of chance involved in the project, McGee’s marriage of medium to message is anything but haphazard. The 33-year-old mother of two is a breast cancer survivor, returning to the United States with her young family approximately two years ago upon learning of her diagnosis while living in El Salvador. In what to this day remains the most personally meaningful reporting I have done, McGee shared her story with the Tribune in June 2010. Her words about art and life revealed deep pools of sensitivity as well as an uncommon gratitude for her life, even amid difficult circumstances. Those same threads are woven through her current undertaking.

“Every day is a new gift and there are moments that I feel like sharing parts of my experience and others I do not,” she said. “However, the hair piece idea came out of a desire to visually represent a new awareness of the support that came from my surroundings during that difficult time.”

Losing her hair — including eyelashes and eyebrows — during her illness brought out previously unseen anxieties. Questions of personhood swirled around McGee as she began to recognize hair as “a strong symbol” of identity. “When I lost” my hair, “it felt like I was staring at a completely new person in front of the mirror,” she said.

Any questions of identity were answered by those around her who displayed solidarity — her husband, parents and children had their hair shorn. Friends and family across the country followed suit. “Even dozens of kids and teachers at my mother-in-law’s elementary school dyed part of their hair pink to support my recovery,” she noted. McGee was reminded her identity is a person in community, rooted in family, friends and faith. She wants nothing less than that resonant reminder for those who participate in her art piece.

“I hope the participants share a sense of connection, of belonging, of literally leaving a piece of themselves to show that we’re all in this together, in one beautifully tangled web of life,” she said. “But more than anything, I just want to see what happens. I know that hair and loss of hair is a significant part of many cancer patients’ experience, and I know … how much it meant to me when so many people changed their hairstyle for me.”

Now cancer-free, the great sense of community McGee has experienced has prompted a sense of freedom to create artistic responses that range from meditative musings to statements of defiance. Last month, she showcased poster art at a Ragtag Cinema exhibit. Several of the pieces raised either figurative or literal middle fingers in the face of cancer. Many paintings created during her illness are not explicitly about the ordeal, yet sound the tones of that time, ones that are sweeter or sadder or quietly resolved. Whatever the expression or medium — perhaps especially when using hair — McGee said her response to cancer is not about creating a pretty picture. By its nature, this current work reinforces a lack of control she felt during her illness — something she has come to recognize as a good thing.

“The best part about community art projects is that you have limited control over how they will turn out or what people will think about them,” she said. “I have to relinquish control of it all and let it be what it will be.”

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