Bettina Hubby Turns Her Breast Cancer Recovery Into an Art Project
PHOTO BY JASON METCALF
Artist Bettina Hubby has a tendency to turn any event into a party. An extended construction annoyance on her block became a one-night art party, complete with a disco ball suspended from a bulldozer arm. A series of programs inspired by the construction of the Expo line, which will deposit museumgoers on the doorstep of the Santa Monica Museum of Art, dubbed Dig the Dig, was the impetus for a "potluck" art exhibition last year. The dinner brought together artists and construction workers over an inflatable bar, accordion music and sculptural installation. Even hosting a simple walk along the L.A. River becomes a good excuse for a scavenger hunt and musical performance.
Hubby's work is collaborative and curatorial, inviting the community to reimagine common public practices. She also loves wordplay, as seen in 2012's Eagle Rock Rock and Eagle Shop selling — what else? — eagle- and rock-related curiosities.
She takes delight in upending the conventions of traditional exhibition spaces, taking her projects to construction sites, riverbanks and retail. So it's only natural that she treats the rest of her life as she does her artistic practice — even when she was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
After the initial shock of the diagnosis wore off, Hubby turned her double mastectomy into an opportunity to create new art. And once again, the contributions of the wider community form the basis for her latest project, Thanks for the Mammaries. (She is powerless to resist a pun.)
First telling only close friends, Hubby hosted a farewell party to, well, her breasts. "It was one of the most joyous, love-filled, hilarious gatherings that I am proud to have instigated," Hubby says.
Friends were invited to bring boob-related food and objects. "I didn't want sad, sorrowful looks. That was the last thing I needed."
Hubby soon decided that she would expand the circle beyond her close friends in a wider call for participation for a collaborative art project. She posted an event on Facebook the day before her surgery, inviting the public to contribute art, imagery or jokes.
For friend, artist and boob-party co-hostess Saskia Wilson-Brown, Hubby's project was "born out of necessity and fear." But according to Wilson-Brown, this project marks an important departure from Hubby's typical projects. "She's acknowledging the need for help instead of helping other people," Wilson-Brown says. "It's the exact inverse of what her work typically entails. To see her turn it toward herself for once is amazing."
Participants are encouraged to not only post their work online but also send it to her gallery, Klowden Mann in Culver City. The rules are simple: Hubby has asked for "something charming, inventive, delightful or downright boob-ish. Jokes, cartoons, puns, limericks, free verse, postcards."
So far, there have been more than 100 postings on her Facebook event page alone. The submissions range from the bawdy (such as the anatomically incorrect sculpture Mumun [top photo] by Sarah Lucas of the Young British Artists) to the highbrow (such as a nude drawing by the frequently breast-obsessed Louise Bourgeois) to the kitschy (a grotesquely large boob piñata from L.A.'s downtown piñata district).
Notorious movie images make an appearance, too, such as the ghostly nude statues that dispense milk from their nipples in A Clockwork Orange's Korova Milk Bar. Famous local landmarks such as the now-decommissioned, double-domed San Onofre nuclear power plant (also the punch line in a breast-related Naked Gun joke) make a cameo as well.
In fact, once the call for participation went out, artists began to experience a visual form of Baader-Meinhof complex, seeing mammaries everywhere they looked. Fruit, topiaries, fire hydrants, knotholes in wood, even the, ahem, knockers on majestic gilded doors in Morocco provide titillation and inspiration for contributors. When it comes to finding breasts in everyday places, their cups runneth over.
"My Gmail ads are all boobs," Wilson-Brown says. "You see them everywhere. It's boobs galore."
Participants have created an abundance of original pieces, sending in sculptures, photographs and paintings. Some, like Micol Hebron, whose practice often deals with gender issues, are recalibrating their work through the lens of Hubby's illness. Her submission, a black-and-white topless self-portrait — taken as she calmly sips from a mug in a Salt Lake City coffee shop, fellow diners blithely eating breakfast behind her — is a bold visual rejoinder to the silence that often surrounds the breast cancer patient.
Painter Joshua Aster departed slightly from his abstract work to create his submission, a pastel-colored oil on linen piece titled Boobly Eyes, referencing Hubby's giant Googly Eyes installation, which was first mounted in Joshua Tree at Giant Rock last year and currently looms above L.A. Eyeworks on Melrose.
Hubby realizes her project may strike some as an overly glib reaction to a grave disease. "I know I was risking ridicule and judgment, maybe even hatred about the way I handled the topic," says Hubby, who asked detractors to stay silent on Facebook.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Wilson-Brown notes that, despite the ingrained cynicism of the art world, the community has rallied around Hubby. "To face something extremely traumatizing and scary and turn that into something positive and beautiful, you would have to be a real asshole to say something negative."
Hubby is currently home post-surgery and recovering as she awaits news of her treatment plan. She plans to take the works — which can be submitted until May 15 — and mount an exhibition this summer at a venue to be announced. Her hope is to eventually turn the art and exhibition into a book and donate any proceeds to breast cancer research.
In the meantime, Hubby relishes in the work of her friends the wit, absurdity and teen-boy humor that Farrelly brothers movies are made of. "Healing is extraordinarily hard," she says. "But humor is healing."
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