Monthly Archives: May 2012

Well of Despair

I realise that this black hole of grief reminds me of my experience of depression. When in a very depressed state I had such a strong visual image of being stuck a couple of 100 metres below ground in this deep well not being able to reach the pin prick of light above me.

The Black Well of Despair

Stuck up to my chin in black oozing mud
Just enough clearance to breathe
The rancid stench of decay fills my nostrils
The taste of death in my mouth.

Raising my eyes
I can just see the pin prick of light far above me
I am deep down, deep down
Stuck in this deep well of despair.

One day I know
I will have the strength to climb out
To make the tortuous journey back up
Back up towards the light and rejoin the living

But for now I am stuck
Stuck here
In this deep black well of despair

Kay Gravell
April 2012

 I was talking to a friend about this experience of feeling like I am in a deep well of despair and she commented that she immediately thought of the sacred well. As in Greek mythology wells contain sacred water and are the source of spiritual rejuvenation.

Black hole of grief

I took this image of my painted body soon after I had had my mastectomy This close up image of my chest wall painted black is a grim reminder of my missing breast. I have carried this image around with me for the last few years . It has been a strong symbol of my grief.

The black space

I peer into the white rimmed
black space.
Where my left breast used to be
now looks empty

My rounded breast
punctuated by a nipple
dripping in red paint
proudly adorns my right chest.

It has such beautiful symmetry
sensual shape
just the right size
to be gently cupped by a hand.

The concaved black emptiness
stares out at me
like an unblinking eye.

A large black pupil
holding hidden depths
of unknown meaning.

Kay Gravell
29th April 2010


Using breast cancer to sell porn and breast enlargements

As a woman who has experienced breast cancer I get increasingly enraged how my experience of a life threatening illness is used to sell everything. In Australia the pink lady brand is ubiquitous appearing everywhere. The pink of breast cancer research is used to market everything from soft drink, to eggs, to clothing. However in US I think they have hit a new low using the image of breast cancer research to sell porn and breast enlargements. Real subtle! Kathi Kolb writing on her blog

highlighted the issue with her story below

“Porn for the Cure

If mere tit-illation isn’t enough for you, how about pornography? Okay, well, not exactly, but another recent news item, from the “You can’t make this stuff up” category, reported that last Tuesday, April 24th, online-streaming porn site [and no, I’m not providing a link] teamed up with “award-winning porn star,” Bree Olson, to provide free breast exams in a bus in downtown New York. Yeah, really. I shudder to contemplate what sorts of awards they dish out to porn stars. And why.

It’s not quite as bad as it sounds. They did have “a team of medical professionals” to carry out these exams, including Dr. David Shafer, a diplomate of the American Board of Plastic Surgery, reportedly voted a “TOP DOC for Botox, Liposuction, Tummy Tuck, and Facelift,” who “was on board to lecture customers on how to conduct examinations of their own and offered his own screening services free of charge.” What a guy. Wonder if Olson is one of his patients. Olson herself told Fox News that she was motivated to do this because the mother of a close friend died in her thirties of breast cancer. Explaining Pornhub’s rationale for the bus,Olson remarked, “They figured, you know, breasts are a large part [no pun intended, I’m sure] of our industry, and the two would kind of coincide.” Heart-warming, isn’t it? One site which reported on this story, called Peeperz — trust me, do not visit — also included a video of a lifelike-down-to-the-tanlines, animated 3D woman-droid performing a breast self-exam. Nice that they’re so public-spirited. And you only need one hand to click ‘Play.’” Kathi Kolb


My scar fades into the background of my life

My scar on my chest seemed so big when I first saw it. I was conscious of it; It’s colour, texture, sensation. Now it is becoming increasingly like just another scar on my body. Another mark on the landscape of my body, another story captured in my body which can be read like Braille.

My scar is a gently reminder
A visible trace of my breast that was
A tear covering my heart
No longer cushioned by my breast
My heart beat is strong and loud

Kay Gravell May 2012


My Scar

My scar fades into the background of my life

My scar on my chest seemed so big when I first saw it. I was conscious of it; It’s colour, texture, sensation. Now it is becoming increasingly like just another scar on my body. Another mark on the landscape of my body, another story captured in my body which can be read like Braille.

My scar is a gently reminder
A visible trace of my breast that was
A tear covering my heart
No longer cushioned by my breast
My heart beat is strong and loud

Kay Gravell May 2012

Torn Tissue

Torn tissue forms the tear in my skin.

I’m interested in the idea of torn tissue; of tearing. I decide to amplify this through another representation. I tear up tissue paper. I enjoy the feeling and the sound of the tissue paper tearing. I then stick the torn tissue paper onto a sheet of white paper. I immerse myself in tearing strips of tissue paper and gluing them onto the paper, gradually building up layers and texture. I’m interested in allowing some layers to emerge. I then create more depth by tearing into the layers.

Tearing, ripping, slashing, shredding
Slitting, my skin, revealing the tissue
And beneath this tissue of lies
my blood, my flesh
the rawness of my pain.

Kay Gravell
May 2012

I have this image of tearing my skin open to reveal the flesh, blood, tissue beneath it. It seems very symbolic for me that my left breast has been removed which has brought my heart closer to the surface. It feels so much more present to me as without the padding of my breast the sound of my heart beat is very loud.

I am reminded of the images of the sacred heart of Jesus that I was exposed to during my catholic upbringing. The image of Jesus with his beating heart revealed through his skin represents his divine love and compassion for all humanity.


 Image by bbburge downloaded from on 10/05/2012



Inquiry using painting

I sit with my smoke drawings and do a phenomenological description of the one above.

On a rectangular piece of white paper there is a bright red piece of torn tissue paper stuck in the middle. It has torn edges with the hair like edges of the tear forming a textured hair-like boundary The red shape is a couple of inches long and about an inch wide. It has a flattish top and bottom. It is placed on a diagonal angle on the vertical of the rectangular piece of paper. One long edge is a fairly straight edge while the other long edge has an indent and rounded protuberance. The red tissue paper has some small creases where it has caught when being stuck down. At the left hand bottom of the red shape is a creamy brown circular smudge. It has an indistinct boundary it just fades into the surrounds. There is a similar, though smaller and less distinct smudge a bit lower down It is much lighter and is just visible from the background. Higher on the page on the top diagonal edge of the red shape is a dark charcoal grey smudgy shape it is rounded and comes over the top of the red paper. It gradually fades.  Covering most of the page are very faint soft grey marks that swirl indistinctly over the page. On the outer edge it is largely unmarked and retains its original white colour. The grey marks do not reach to the outer edges. The red centre is such a strong contrast to the rest of the marks it really leaps out of the page. The rest of the grey marks have a soft delicate feel.

I then bracket in the lived experience of my body following a mastectomy and choose key words, which I then cluster. I then give each cluster or group of words a title.

Cluster 1 – Bright, red, lighter, dark, strong, contrast (Bright red blood creates the visible mark of my pain)

Cluster 2 – torn, tissue, tear, forming creases, marks (Torn tissue forms the tear  in my skin)

Cluster 3 – stuck, indistinct, fades, retains, background (My scar fades into the background of my life

Bright red blood creates the visible mark of my pain

Smoke Drawing

I began to play with the idea of tracing; I decided to make some smoke drawings. I used different papers and candles to get a range of effects.  I tried a number of different types of paper and candles before I got the smoke to really leave a mark. I loved the totally emergent nature of the pictures. The smoke made beautiful images in the air before swirling around the paper. Although I moved the paper in an attempt to control the aesthetic of what I was creating I really had very limited control over where the smoke went. I found this really freeing. Just allowing the smoke to make its mark.

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William Kentridge Exhibition

I was still immersed in this idea of leaving traces of my life behind when I went to an exhibition of William Kentridge. As a South African, who lived through the apartheid era, his work is highly political. His approach captures the ephemeral and impermanent nature of life. Rather than starting with a clear idea of what he wants to create he allows the image to emerge through the relationship between his mediums – often charcoal or Indian ink on paper.

Drawing is the basis of what he does. It is about the simple use of charcoal or Indian ink on paper, but also about the sense of not having a script or a storyboard, he says. ”And it’s the same when you’re making a film. Letting something develop organically, in this constant backwards and forwards from the material that’s drawn and what could still be drawn on top of it.” (downloaded on 28/04/2012 from

Kentridge’s way of creating moving images is to make a drawing and then photograph it, alter the drawing, re-photograph it and repeat the sequence scores of times, shifting figures or objects by small increments and copious erasures. The movement of anything leaves an ominous trace, as the presence in a previous location has to be rubbed out, which is never perfectly achieved. (downloaded on 28/04/2012 from

His method of erasing what has gone before and applying the new image on top of the trace of what is left behind resonates very powerfully with what emerged for me through the creation of this small story book.

Trace of my life

Small  story books

An exercise I did with the group of women who had had a mastectomy was making small story books. Firstly you cut an A4 piece of paper into thirds and give each person one of these long narrow pieces of paper. They are invited to create a concertina folded book by folding their paper in half, then half again and so on until there is a concertina with 8 folded squares. They are then invited to paint their paper on both sides with a water colour wash using an abstract pattern; this will form the background to their story. Once this is completed each person writes for 10-15 minutes completing the following statements by writing in free association:

I am …………..

I want …………….

I need ……………

After 15 minutes each person sits with their writing and chooses one phrase, which they write on the front and back folds of their story book. Then they just complete the story writing a word/phrase/sentence in each folded section. When they get to the end of one side they turn the page over and there will be the starting phrase again and complete this side. Once the story books are completed each person takes it in turns to read their story out.

The one I completed is shown below:

I was scared
I thought I was going to die
but facing death
wasn’t so scary
just a slipping
into the light
leaving a faint trace
of my life behind.

I was scared
Then I found
real peace
knowing I had
lived my life to the full
with no regrets.
Can I hold this wisdom?
was scared. 

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When I read it out the other women gave me their responses

Slipping into the light banana

No need to remember how just making traces

Scared but accepting

Uncertain of your hold on life

This again brought out the theme of the silver lining i.e. that through facing death I had found a sense of calm that has eluded me all my life. I just need to remember this and hold onto it. One woman asked me why I thought I was going to die. Had I read all the literature that would have told me I had low probability of dying. I said no I hadn’t felt drawn to read lots of stuff but I was scared of dying as I was having my fourth general anesthetic in as many months. I want to be present at my death. I find the idea of dying on the operating theatre under general anesthetic really scary.

This activity got me thinking about leaving a trace of my life behind. This was a powerful idea for me. I had always wanted to leave a something big behind, some sort of legacy; to know that I had made some sort of difference to the world in some way; maybe a novel that would live on after me etc. It was a relief to know that I could feel at peace knowing I had left just a light trace of my life behind.