As part of my recovery from breast cancer, I started a series of images that featured a guillotine, specifically from the French Revolution (I’m a French language student, no coincidence!) I had this strong image in my head from the early days of diagnosis and it’s an image that’s grown stronger over time.
Living with a cancer diagnosis feels like, for me, that there’s always something hanging over me. Some days I can push this feeling more to the background. Other days it’s right in the forefront of everything I feel. Wherever it is on my spectrum of feelings, it’s always there like a soundtrack to my life. Currently I struggle to control it when it dominates my every day thinking. After speaking with others who were a little further along the survival journey than me, including my sister, feeling this every day might not go away for another 1 to 2 years.
And it might not entirely disappear.
When I first presented my pictures to my art therapy group, one of the members said that she could relate to these images because she’d often felt like cancer was an axe hanging over her head.
The idea to create a series of images with a common theme came from another member of our group. She had created beautiful images on a theme of a female ballet dancer – in one image, the ballet dancer was wearing angel wings.
As soon as I saw her images, it all clicked into place how I needed to progress with my theme – strong images of a guillotine placed in various scenarios came into my mind. I also knew that the depictions could get quite dark, although interestingly, all my creations on this theme to date have been hopeful and positive.
I have created 3 images so far (4 if you count a Christmas-themed one that I did of Santa’s reindeer pulling the guillotine behind it, but perhaps I’ll release this one for Christmas 2021!) I’m not sure if I’ll create anymore guillotine images, or if I do, how many there will be in the end, or if their themes will be darker. It seems to me that this is a theme to be produced over time and the images need to be created as and when I visualise them.
Image description: A photograph of an A5 sized water-colour pad, portrait orientation. The background is painted in a dark blue water-colour paint with thick brush strokes. An image of a cartoon black and white guillotine from the French Revolution has been printed out from a template that I found online, and glued down into the page. The guillotine is “wearing” a cape – draped and glued into place over the guillotine are purple, yellow, and blue-coloured fake feathers. Holding the feathers together is a pink pom-pom. A red rubber band holds the page in place across the bottom of the picture.
The first guillotine-themed image that I created was from thinking about how much I missed dressing up to go out; so instead of doing this, the only way to express myself was to dress the guillotine up in party clothes. In the past, whenever I’ve faced challenges, I’ve always tried to party them away; hence I’m hiding my fears (depicted by the guillotine) in party-wear (the feathered cape). I deliberately chose vibrant, rainbow colours for the cape to give the maximum contrast to the black and white guillotine.
Image description: A photograph of an A5 sized water-colour pad, landscape orientation, placed on an orange tablemat. The background colour is mixed blue and white water-colours, painted in thick brush strokes, to create a lightly clouded sky. The same black and white, cartoon image of the guillotine is glued so it appears like it is floating in the middle of the page. I used 3 different lengths of white cord from blinds which I attached to the guillotine to make them look like ropes. Attached to the ropes are flying geese which I cut out from a Christmas card. The guillotine also has its own cartoon rope, and I attached a robin to it, also cut out from a Christmas card. I’ve created the image to look like the guillotine is being pulled up and away into the sky by the birds. A red rubber band holds the page in place across the bottom of the picture.
It took me a while to get this image right, mainly because the blind cord wouldn’t stick down upon the painted page! This image was created from my thoughts about how I just wanted someone or something to come and make all of the cancer go away; that the cancer would somehow float away from me by its own accord. This is how I was feeling over the summer, waiting for a surgery date. Hence the birds in a light blue and white sky, (my dreams) taking matters into their own hands and gently pulling the guillotine (the cancer) away from me.
Image description: A photograph of an A5 sized water-colour pad, portrait orientation. The background colour is a vibrant green watercolour, painted in thick brush strokes. The same black and white cartoon image of a guillotine is glued onto the page. I’ve cut out a photograph of an outline of myself and glued it beneath the guillotine. Because my arms are stretched upwards, my eyes are closed and I’m shouting, it appears that I’m lifting the guillotine high above my head. I’ve used this same photograph in my first blog. It’s a picture of me taken at Latitude Festival where I’m totally lost in the music. I’m a white woman in a wheelchair (wheelchair not shown in the picture), wearing a black puffa jacket and black leather gloves, a woolly pink and green hat with pink tassels, purple reading glasses, a pink woolly scarf, and a small white cross-body shoulder bag. A red rubber band holds the page in place across the bottom of the picture.
I think this could be my favourite image yet. I think my face shows how dead set I am at pushing all of this cancer stuff (depicted by the guillotine) far away from me, but it’s heavy and difficult to push, and how it’s taking all my strength. However, I think you can see pure joy in my face as I’m pushing upwards; in holding up the guillotine and how ready I am to throw it away. I guess this relates to the feeling I had when I finished my radiotherapy, and I was allowed to “ring the bell” (many people get to do this when they finish different parts of the treatment) in the hospital. I was ecstatic that day and I came home, then drank a whole bottle of champagne whilst sitting in my front garden in the pouring rain.
Festivals are in my blood – rain has never put me off doing anything!