“Randomly select a word from the dictionary and express it in any way you choose” was the card I pulled from my Arty Farty Creativity Prompts Deck. The random word generator threw up “tassel”—an interesting word and no mistake, it conjured up images of brash burlesque confidence, seductive teasing and titillation, ripe with imagery no artist could resist. That, for me, as a woman and an artist, was a pivotal moment. Three weeks before, I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. Three days before the lockdown in the UK was announced, I was on the operating table having my right breast removed. One week later, I ventured back into the studio to reconnect with my inner artist, shuffled the deck for a starting point and, of all the possibilities in the English language, there couldn’t have been a word that was more brutally confronting.
I’m a member of a private Facebook artists’ group which, when faced with the awful reality of a worldwide pandemic, was beginning to question the very validity of art and was losing its sense of purpose and motivation. I’d offered to post one of my creative prompts each day for anyone who wished to take up the challenge. The response pulled us together in an unexpected and remarkable way and, guided by my daily prompts, brought a much needed focus and forged deep connections. I was faced with a choice—I could quietly pull a replacement card and say nothing, or hit it head on and dare to rise to the challenge.
That small decision raised all kinds of issues. How did I feel about my body? How should I represent it from that point on? What would be “appropriate,” or “seemly”? Was it a subject for public display? Dare I be so open, so visible, so matter of fact, so unaffected and how would it be received if I did? My relationship with my cancer has been very down-to-earth and pragmatic: it was an issue that needed dealing with and I’d done that. Apart from healing from the actual surgery, it’s not really been an issue, other than feeling particularly strongly that I haven’t time or energy to waste on worrying about “what ifs.” I’m still me. A bit wonkier than before, that’s all. So I went for it in a totally new way, carelessly, boldly, bravely and in the spirit of honesty and authenticity. I still have one breast and if I want to “tassle” it, I shall! This represents my “coming out” piece. I love it and it shouts out that every woman is entitled to feel this way regardless.
Social isolation gave me the time and space to step back from the world without having to explain myself to others. My business was put on hold, which took me out of circulation with ease. I have been able to get used to being a slightly different me, and had time to become comfortable in my own skin privately without well-meaning interference, expectations or unnecessary sympathy. What might have been a time of feeling alone, afraid and adrift became a time of sanctuary and self-healing. My husband and I realised just how comfortable we are without all the clamour and busyness. We’ve become happy introverts. It’s felt like blessed relief. We’ve kept in close contact with those who are important to us, enjoying our precious time together all the more, and we’ve gently let go of all the “padding” that we haven’t really missed at all. Priority shifts have been inevitable and welcomed.
Now I’ve had time away from the world, I realise what I’ve most missed is people, touch, connection and that’s what’s coming through in my work. It’s all about people and relationships, distance and closeness, separation and coming together. It’s a powerful new artistic direction for me. This time out, this breathing space, it’s like a reset and I, for one, have no desire to go back. I can’t. I’ll never be the same as I was and that’s no bad thing. I’m in my mid-60s and I’m going forward—bravely, shamelessly, with purpose—because there is no other way.
We each have our own relationship with what has happened. Pandemic isolation: health or wholeness, prison or sanctuary, trapped or protected, feast or famine (metaphorically). In the midst of all this fear, uncertainty and chaos, the one thing I can control is how I choose to relate to it and what I will allow it to mean to me—now if that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is.
Copyright © 2020 June Shapter
June Shapter was born in 1954 in a Lancashire Mill Town, but has lived and worked in Stoke-on-Trent in the heart of the Potteries (UK) for the past 25 years. Now a full time artist, she works from her small home studio enjoying the freedom & time to fully express the artist within.