Painter refines the art of battling breast cancer

SUSAN REIMER

September 21, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

The colors in Hollis Sigler's paintings are vivid. Bright pastel purples, reds, yellows and blues. And her paintings are delicately drawn, almost naive, as if they were done by a young girl who hasn't quite figured out what her art teacher means by perspective.

But look closer and you will see that all the mirrors in her paintings are cracked -- shattered, actually. All the appliances in her tiny, dollhouse scenes are broken, and the tablecloths have holes in them. The trees in her gardens are broken and patched back together with boards, nails and rope.

And the dresses. Look closer. All the pretty, little dresses have a ragged, bloody hole where a breast would be.

Hollis Sigler has breast cancer. And her art is both a diary of her anguish and a means to purge that anguish. In her paintings, you find the surreal world of a woman clutching desperately at normalcy, for control. And in the layered frames around these paintings, you find Sigler's blunt, painful messages, written in gold paint in a delicate script.

"One out of every nine women will get breast cancer in her lifetime. . . ." is the message written around the four sides of one frame.

"And where does the anger go? What am I supposed to do with my anger? My emotions fluctuate between feeling sorry for myself and rage," reads the message around another frame. NTC "And then there is the thought that this is all a bad dream that will go away."

Sigler's work is on display now through Nov. 14 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, where it is sponsored by the National Breast Cancer Coalition. The show is titled "Breast Cancer Journal: Walking with the Ghosts of My Grandmothers," and it is dedicated to all the women who have died of a disease about which the medical establishment knows shockingly little.

Sigler's mother and grandmother died of breast cancer. She was first diagnosed in 1985 and lost a breast to surgery. The cancer recurred for a third time last year, in her bones. "My work has always been about the emotional content of our lives. It has just taken on this other element, that's all," says Sigler.

Sigler's 14 paintings trace the pendulum swings of her emotions. From anger -- daggers are thrown at a bloody garment with a hole in the bodice in one painting -- to hope for a miraculous cure -- flowers grow up through torn garments in another painting.

"The reason I put this in my work is that this is terrible and something good should come of it," says Sigler. "So I put it in my art, and I let it fly. I wasn't sure what would come out of it."

Also on display at the National Museum of Women in the Arts is a photographic essay, "The Face of Breast Cancer." The coalition has gathered photographs of 63 women from nearly every state who have died of breast cancer. Under each photograph is a chilling capsule of that woman's life. "Wife of . . ., mother of . . . ." "Diagnosed in 1989, she lived two years."

Most of the photos are family portraits, and you see the faces of the husband and young children who are also victims of breast cancer. While the colors and doll-like images of Hollis Sigler's paintings draw you into her world before you realize the pain you will feel there, these smiling, black-and-white photographs and the tiny descriptions of the lives of these now-dead women overpowers you with grief.

This pain and this grief is meant to move us to anger and action. At the front desk of the museum is a petition addressed to President Clinton asking for a comprehensive strategy to find the cause and the cure for breast cancer.

As women take their cue from AIDS activists, there will be a march on Oct. 18 to the White House, where the coalition hopes to present Clinton with 2.6 million signatures. Why that number? Because 2.6 million women have breast cancer in this country. And 1.6 million of them don't know it yet.

Breast cancer has not claimed Hollis Sigler yet. With cans of paint and tiny brushes, she flits around the museum repairing tiny scrapes and little bits of damage to the frames that carry her messages to us. There is no message in one frame, however.

It surrounds a very large oil painting, titled: "To Kiss the Spirits: Now This Is What It Is Really Like." In it, women climb a golden spiral staircase from the back yards of their neighborhood into a dark, starry sky. As the staircase winds higher, the women are transformed to angels. And they fly away.

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