Portrait of Clare Best

Poetry, photography, and procedures - the arts meet medicine

Preventive medicine, cancer and body image are the issues which will be explored in a creatively focused event at the University of Exeter on 27 November. ‘Self-portrait without Breasts’ will look at how art can be used to help those who have undergone life-changing medical procedures, as well as discuss the use of language and image to represent people’s experience of surgery.

Visiting poet Clare Best has a family history of breast cancer; she nursed her mother through two radical mastectomies and in her late 40s, the age at which her mother first had the disease, doctors told her she had a high risk of breast cancer. She chose preventive bilateral mastectomy, without reconstruction. “I also chose not to disguise my new flat chest,” Clare Best explains. During this difficult time of decision-making, Clare turned to art. Making plaster casts of her body, she also collaborated with photographer Laura Stevens who took photos before and after her mastectomy. As Clare recalls: “Gradually, what had begun as my way of coping, evolved into a major creative project. The more I published and performed the poems, and later showed Laura’s images, the more I realised that people wanted to talk about the surrounding questions of beauty, identity, loss and creativity.” The result is a sequence of evocative photographs which will be exhibited and Clare will recite from her book of poems Excisions.

The event will expand upon Clare’s creative project with a debate between a range of experts within medicine and the arts. The discussion panel will consist of Dr James Mackay, a world leading Genetic Oncologist specialising in clinical cancer genetics at University College London and University of Exeter academics Dr Corinna Wagner, a visual historian and literary critic, and professor of psychology Dr Janet Reibstein, who has written a memoir about breast cancer. Like Clare, Dr Reibstein has a family history of breast cancer. Unlike Clare she chose to have reconstruction, which itself necessitated further surgeries and reconstructions. As  a clinical psychologist with research and clinical interest in couples and also in gender she can reflect, through her personal and clinical experience, the effects of both breast cancer and of being breastless, on the woman, the couple and the wider family. She will read relevant excerpts from her memoir, Staying Alive: A Family Memoir. Having just completed a research project on the politics of representing disease and disorder, Dr Wagner will present some iconic images of breasts. She will explore how cultural and political battles have been fought over this body part. Drawing on material from Pathological Bodies: Politics and Medicine, she will show how throughout history, breasts have been at the centre of debates about nature and normality, gender and morality.

Dr Andy Brown, Director of Creative Writing at the University of Exeter who is hosting the event, said: ”It is the first in a series of events which explore the relationships between aesthetics and medicine. We wanted to provide a creative response to important questions about the long-standing and vital relationships between art and medicine. The event seeks to raise questions about how we think of and represent our bodies, how they are seen and treated under the medical gaze, and what art and literature have to bring to understanding these shocking experiences and re-shaping of our bodies through surgery."

The ‘Self-portrait without Breasts’ event is free-of-charge and will be held in Lecture Theatre 1, Queen’s Building on Streatham Campus at 6.30pm.

Date: 23 November 2012