Intersecting Circles: Thoughts About a Friend

 Resourceful. A leader. Pretty. Generous. Purposeful. Supportive. Tough. Upbeat. Organized. Self-Assured. Fair.

Our friend Ann passed away on January 22. Maybe she was your friend, too. She pretty much knew everyone.

Ann was one of the first women who volunteered to be photographed for Of Scars. Back then, we had no idea what we were doing, really. We did know it was important to learn a bit about people before asking them to take off their shirts, though, and so we designed this cutesy little questionnaire that we asked models to fill out and bring to their photo sessions. On the first page of our packet was a list of words, and instructions to “Circle the words that describe you.”

Ann was too big to fit in our little list of words, so she added a few of her own: Resourceful. A leader. PrettyAnd on and on…

It was a huge turning point for us. It seems so obvious now, but we learned that day that people are beyond definition. Ann didn’t let our words define her, and she didn’t let cancer define her.

I knew her well enough to tell you just a tiny little bit about the things that did define her. See, her participation in Of Scars was a happy accident. We’d just posted the only open call for models we’ve ever posted, and somehow that resulted in a phone call from Ann to me, but I’d known her before. When I was a kid, I was in a choir, and Ann was our manager. She was an extraordinary leader, and a wonderful mom to her daughters, both of whom were also in the choir. As the years went on, she also became something of a mom to everyone else. If a kid needed someone to chat with, or a ride, or anything, really, Ann would reliably fill that gap. And as kids, we responded to her because she was a leader, and because of that big, pretty smile she so readily shared. Those things defined her. 

Today, at her memorial service, hundreds and hundreds of people gathered to remember her. There were so many things to celebrate. Ann literally wrote the book on how to provide incredible customer service. She had an enviable career. She volunteered for every organization under the sun. She helped people when people needed help. In the wake of the tragedy at Columbine, she founded a program that works to make school a safe and welcoming place for students. She loved the hell out of her husband. She loved the hell out of lots of people, actually. She traveled. She made people laugh all the time. She raised successful and happy and compassionate daughters with smiles just like hers.

As the minister listed each of Ann’s accomplishments and affiliations, he’d ask for a show of hands from the people who knew her in that way. “Raise your hands if you knew her from high school,” he’d say, and a dozen or so hands would appear in the air. “Raise your hands if you know her from work.” Some hands raised again and again.

In closing, the minister said, “Ann lived her whole life drawing intersecting circles, and filling them with love.”

And there we were. In that room were hundreds of the friendships and projects and ideas she’d created, all intersecting at that very same point, in celebration of a woman who made our lives better.

Cancer might have taken her body, but it’s not quite accurate to say that Ann died from cancer. She lived through cancer, defining herself by the things that she wrote into her circles.

Thanks for showing us all how it’s done, Ann. This world is gonna miss you.

2013 Sneak Peak #5: Let’s Talk About Real Awareness

A few times per year, we are asked this question:

“Why do you do what you do?”

The truth is, this project was never meant to be a long-term deal. It began as a simple, photographic exploration born of conversations I’d had with my mother, as she went through her diagnosis and surgery. Those first few photographs were incredibly personal. And they were incredibly universal. So we took more. We talked to people who’d walked this road. We listened a lot. And we learned something very important.

Breast Cancer Awareness is not a month. In our culture, we like our messages easy. We compartmentalize. We watch as newscasters lead with ten-second summaries of major world events, and end with thirty-second feel-good pieces involving comical viral YouTube videos. We don’t want to be aware, really. It’s scary, and it hurts.

Real awareness means understanding, and understanding is a decision. If you really want to know what’s going on with anyone–or anything–you have to stop, and absorb, and listen (please listen), and respond. It seems so common sense, but those behaviors are in direct opposition to our quick-decision marketing culture.

I’ve said it before in interviews and on our podcast, but breast cancer amplifies the experience of being a person–and particularly of being a woman–in our culture. We are expected to be healthy, and perfectly sound of body and mind. We are expected to hold it together. We are expected to believe that our bodies define our femininity (or masculinity). We are medicalized and sexualized and idealized and minimized. We are not told that it’s okay to fall apart, sometimes. We are not told that we’re greater than the sum of our parts. We are not given the message that our bodies are only the tiniest part of our human experience, and the most fallible. We are not reminded that this is our greatest strength.

Real awareness is huge. Breast cancer awareness isn’t about pink stuff. We know people get cancer. But until it touches our lives personally, we don’t see the human part of that story. We need to ask ourselves what happens in the wake of that diagnosis: What happens to relationships? To mental health? To future plans? What does that all mean?

Real awareness is about people, and anytime we open ourselves to understanding the complexity and beauty of the people around us, we get to learn about ourselves.

This project teaches me so, so much. Somehow, we managed to stumble upon a project that asks people to take a minute to stop and think. And somehow, that’s healing to so many people.

See that woman in the photograph? She shared one of the scariest and most vulnerable times in her life with us. How gutsy is that? And then, nearly a year later, she came back for the “after” pic. You can see it tonight. She’s got a scar, it’s true, but she’s also got life in her eyes that will sparkle right into your heart. It’s beautiful.

And I hope that when you see it, you’ll find an awareness of your beautiful, strong self, with all of your sparkles and scars. That’s why we do what we do.

2013 Sneak Preview #4

When Jill found us, she was a woman in the midst of transformation. A lifelong performer who felt as comfortable onstage as anywhere, cancer asked Jill to put her expressive side on hold for a bit, while she focused on her internal priorities. Jill carefully selected props and a location that reflected every side of herself. We got to see Jill as a bold presence, willing to share her journey with the world, and as a creative and contemplative woman who is finding out for herself what the next chapter of life holds. It was a graceful and personal session. I hope you’ll feel it, too, when you see the images on Saturday.


For the last three years, our Annual Celebration of Scars has been held at the Fox Egg Gallery in South Minneapolis. It’s a close-knit corner, and many of the business owners and neighborhood residents have grown quite close. Last year, the artists across the street at the 4 Points Body Gallery offered to help us out by tattooing the Of Scars logo onto anyone who wanted it the night of the show. Bunches of our attendees took them up on it.

This year, the offer got bigger. Several of the artists have developed flash specific to the event, drawings that symbolize to them the journey through and beyond cancer, in addition to our logo. They’re available for a small donation to the project. Above, you can see a couple of them, but we’ll have the drawings at Fox Egg Gallery on Saturday. If you’re into ink (or want to be), consider getting one of these small, original pieces. Document your celebration of scars, of survival, and benefit our project at the same time.

2013: Sneak Preview #3

When we met Lisbeth, she shared the story of a winter of trials in a year when life got turned upside-down, for a bit. But she also shared a story of comfort: Of sitting in a picture window and watching the snow flakes dance around her in her own personal snow globe, sweater-cozy, somehow assured that things would eventually be alright. She shared the story of a loving partner, an exciting future, and a (mostly) graceful journey to healing.

2013: Sneak Preview #2

The text conversation went like this.

Jessica: Do you think the theater would allow fire eating?
One of the other people organizing our shoot: [stuff about liability] but I’ll ask. It’s worth inquiring.
Jessica: Just for clarification, it’s just fire eating, not spitting fire plumes. I can’t do that.

It turns out, we weren’t allowed to bring fire into the gorgeous theater, although we definitely have plans to take a rain-check on the concept. (Come see those images next year!) It’s clear, though, that Jessica is a spitfire with loads of tenacity and a great sense of humor–elements that add up to a pretty freakin’ fun photo session.

Sneak Preview Time Again

Our big event is this Saturday. Remember? You’re coming, right?

The longer we work on this project, the more we figure out how to do it better. A couple of years ago, we realized that we needed to have meetings with our models well before we even schedule a photo session. It’s our way to make 100% sure that everyone involved wins, and no one loses. In those meetings, we talk about each person’s story–her diagnosis, her victories, her fears, her experience. We get an idea of what is motivating our model–the reasons for working with the project are as individual as the people who bring them. We brainstorm a conceptual plan.

And then we ask questions: “What is your goal for the photo session? What do you want to feel like when you’ve taken these photos?”

When we met Heather, she shared the story of a rather difficult diagnosis. The truth about survivors, you see, is that sometimes survival doesn’t mean freedom from this disease. Sometimes, you survive with the cancer, for the rest of your life. We talked for a long time about what that meant, and when we asked Heather how she wanted to feel after her photos, she said, “Honest.”


The day of the shoot, we showed up with paintbrushes and a roll of seamless paper, and Heather doodled the things that she carries with her as she navigates the Big Questions about life with cancer. It wasn’t always an easy list to read, but it was real and it was honest. And I guarantee that somewhere out there, someone will see it and feel a little bit less alone.

That’s why I love this project so very, very deeply. The courage of these women gets shared, and multiplied, and somehow turns into a community of support that amazes and humbles me. Surviving past–or with–cancer is heavy stuff. It’s honest, messy business and there’s not a road map or a flow chart that tells you what to do. But somehow, people come forward to remind us all that in the middle of the trickiest stuff, no one is alone. I’m so grateful to be a part of that message.

Stop by on Saturday. You’ll see what we mean.

Things You Want to Hear

Last year, at our exhibition, our friends from Minneapolis-based band Sleep Study composed an original soundtrack for the event. Songwriter Ryan Paul employed tremendous sensitivity as he mixed audio clips of poetry written by one of our models (and read by her family) over a score that completed the experience of the event in a moving and stunningly beautiful way.

It was an “A-ha” moment for us. We’ve always said that our project is about more than the photos, but adding the voices of those impacted by the cancer journey added depth to the project. Amidst the conversations and levity happening in the room, participants could take a moment and listen to insights into that incredibly complex journey through cancer, with all of its joy, fear, pride, sadness, and hope.

This year, Jon Herchert of Dark Pony scored the event for us. Instead of poetry, we used audio clips that our “podmin” Josh pulled from our podcast. Some of it is just us talking about the project and what it’s meant to us. Some of it is playful banter between the participants in our monthly discussion groups. And much of it is vulnerable and real discussion that our models have bravely allowed us to make public. All of it is part of the story of this year’s incredible group of survivors. These women have moved us, and taught us, and inspired us.

The musicians who’ve so kindly helped us are in their own rites positive, compassionate, and delightful people. I perused both Sleep Study’s and Dark Pony’s albums today, and discovered delightedly that both albums have themes that are very much in alignment with our project. From Jon Herchert’s unabashedly uplifting lyrics (“Try to be true/Try to be you./That’s the truth”) to the unfailing hope in Ryan Paul’s “Nothing Can Destroy”, it seems that amazing people and messages keep finding their way into our lives, and into this project.

Join us on Saturday to hear our newest soundtrack, as well as a set by the wonderfully talented Actual Wolf. It’s gonna be good, we promise.

Here, for your listening pleasure.




Breast Impressions of my Childhood Hero, and Wishes for a Swift Recovery


I was an unstoppable bookworm as a child, and at the core of my essential reading was anything by Judy Blume.  Blume came to popularity more than a decade before I was ready for her, but the occasional confusing pop-culture reference didn’t matter in the face of a greater truth: her work made me feel normal.

Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing was my coping mechanism when I found myself a lonely fourth-grader after moving to a new school in a new town. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great helped me to understand that I wasn’t the only kid who was afraid of stuff. Then there was Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret . 

It was hard for me to talk about my body growing up, and though I struggled with body image issues as I navigated through childhood and into puberty, I didn’t feel like there was anyone I could ask about things. Breasts, after all, were “private parts,” and modesty dictated that they should be discussed only with a physician, and even then probably only at gunpoint. Imagine my mortification with the other changes that were happening.

The fifth grade book fair was a game-changer. That’s when I took my own cash and ponied up for a paperback copy of Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. Margaret was working through all kinds of issues, from her quest to find her spirituality to the mind-warp that is puberty. And she talked about it. She talked about periods, and about sanitary napkins, and about buying bras. Margaret even played spin-the-bottle, and did exercises in the effort to help her breasts grow. It was so scandalous. I wondered if my mother would let me finish the book, if she knew.

For the first time, I understood that growing up is an impossibly awkward business, and that the only way to survive it was simply to wake up every day and embrace it. I decided not to get swept up in the nonsense of it. I bought a plain white t-shirt that said “I am a nerd” in Courier font, and I wore it to my first day of middle school, confident that I was not alone.

Thank you Judy.

On her blog this morning, Judy Blume revealed a story that is perhaps far more personal to her than those I read as a child: her own breast cancer diagnosis. I am in awe of this childhood hero of mine for the honesty and clarity with which she writes of her own journey, even as she charts her course through these tender weeks post-diagnosis.

Blume wrote, “When it comes to breast cancer you’re not alone, and scary though it is, there’s a network of amazing women to help you through it.”

Keep talking, friends. Your honesty and compassion will help someone else to find his or her own way. You might be the reason someone else discovers that she is not alone.

And Judy? Thanks again.

New and Exciting!

As always, this project seems to move at its own pace, in fits and starts. We’ve learned to be okay with this, as both us of have these “job” things that keep us busy and we have to get stuff done when we can.

Even so, we’re gearing up to have a huge year. We’ve met with more prospective models for the 2012 collection than we’ve met with in all of our previous experience combined. We’ve been advised by women in active stages of treatment, women who’ve established new families in the wake of their struggle with cancer, or chosen prophylactic mastectomy to prevent cancer in the face of frightening family histories. We’ve held our breath at the news that newfound survivor friends were battling recurrences of their disease. We even heard from an upcoming model who was so moved by this project that she added an Of Scars tattoo to her tat collection. In every way, we are humbled and inspired. We’ve heard more perspectives than ever before, met our oldest and youngest survivors to date, and heard story after incredible story. Whether we’re learning what it means to live with cancer, or to rebuild with the new identity of Survivor, it’s been a powerful and emotional journey already, and we’re just getting started.

Beyond a deeper and more diverse group of models, our project is in the process of expanding our approach to artistic exploration of the Survival Experience. We’re calling our new series Seeing Scars, and with it, we’re deepening the art of conversation about cancer. In the coming months, we’ll bring in speakers, experts, and survivors with fascinating perspective on the third Tuesday of each month. Tonight, we’ll kick off it off simply with a refresher course on the Of Scars project for those who’ve followed it for awhile, and an introduction for anyone new to the project. If you’re in Minneapolis, and you’re free, come hang out with us at the Fox Egg Gallery from 7-8 tonight. (We feed people snacks. We’re cool like that.)

In coming months, we’ll turn this part of the discussion to matters both practical and profound. We’ll explore things as seemingly simple as talking to friends with cancer, and as challenging as feeling like your beautiful, sexy, and strong self during chemo.

We hope you’ll join us for a session or two (or hey, even all six!), but if you can’t, keep an eye on the site. We’ll be creating a podcast from each of the Seeing Scars discussion events, and posting it here for you to hear, or to share with friends.