AATA Conference 2016

It was great to give my presentation to so many arts therapists. Quite a few people who work in oncology came and spoke to me and said it had given them a new insight into women’s experience of breast cancer and that they would take that understanding to their work. I feel like this is my role to bring the patient’s voice powerfully into the filed of professionals.


American Art Therapy Association Conference

I’m excited to be heading off to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) annual conference in Baltimore Maryland from 7-10 July 2016, where I will be presenting a Master class on arts based research. My presentation will be based on my Doctorate in Creative Arts Therapy which I undertook at MIECAT, Australia. See the abstract below.


This enquiry is grounded in my own personal experience of breast cancer. I experienced the loss of my breast, not only as a change to the shape and feel of my physical body but also in the way I understood and expressed myself as a woman. Still largely based on the bio-medical paradigm, the medical system in Australia encourages women to have a breast reconstruction at the same time, or soon after, their mastectomy in order to nalise their treatment and ensure they get back to “normal” as soon as possible. This enquiry explores how I used creative arts to nd meaning in my lived experience of breast cancer; in particular, how I made sense of my changed body, came to a decision to not have a breast reconstruction, and explored how to live as a one-breasted woman.

Using creative arts I attempted to speak from my body. Situated within a review of di erent discourses of the body, my enquiry centres on an understanding of the feminist phenomenological body as a continuously forming shape-shifting entity intermingled and coconstructed with the social and natural world. Working alone and alongside other women, I undertook numerous enquiry cycles using a range of di erent art modalities, with a particular focus on sensory knowing formed through relationship with the art materials. Touch provided the bridge between my experiencing, emotion,

and movement into art-making, allowing me to heighten my sensory awareness thus providing the space for new knowing to arise within my body.

Using a fusion of di erent modalities, my enquiry centred on two key images. One image created from my painted body allowed me to explore existential issues of mortality and the meaning of life, while the pink lady image provoked me to explore my feelings of anger, vulnerability, and shame. Through these images I discovered that a particular artwork is able to hold the complexity of lived experience.

My own arts based exploration of my breast cancer experience provides a method for other women to follow, it will inform my own arts based practice, provides a template for arts based groupwork, and contributes to the understanding of women’s lived experience of breast cancer that can influence the support provided by family, friends, and health services.

The full thesis is available on https://ikoninstitute.academia.edu/KayGravell/Thesis-Chapters


Cancer as a battleground

I listened to a really interesting podcast of Radio National Australia 360 Documentaries entitled Cancer as a Battleground http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/360/cancer-as-a-battleground/4156650

In the developed western world the dominant discourse of cancer is as a battleground. This was really started in US in 1971 with the appropriation of $100 mill to launch a war against cancer. There was a belief that cancer, a major burden of disease, could be defeated in much the same was as other major diseases like smallpox, polio etc. It only needed enough money to find the magic cure. So the war on cancer, like the war on drugs and the war on terrorism became an easy slogan to garner our attention and justify large amounts of public funds to create a voracious research machine.

The weapons of war, chemicals, radiation and biological are deployed against the bad cancerous cells inside our body. The focus is on ridding the body of these alien cells and thereby allowing the diseased person to survive.  Treatment is constructed as a battle of good versus evil with all the power of the artillery available to the modern medical system waged against this evil.

In this podcast it is pointed out that we don’t question the war on cancer as we question other wars and without this debate we are caught in an earlier more naïve view of war like World War 2; one which is seen as goodies versus baddies and can be won with the baddies being defeated.

“ We start to run, swim, bake, grow moustaches, wear pink, have afternoon teas etc to fight the war – like nationalist buying war bonds during war.”

We love war stories and admire war heroes. In the battle against cancer there is a whole machinery for the construction of suitable heroes. We particularly look to celebrities. The breast cancer industry has constructed a number of celebrity heroes such as Melissa Etherington, Farrah Fawcett and in Australia we have

Kylie Minogue, Olivia Newton John, Jane McGrath and Belinda Emmet. The thing that all these women have in common is that they are beautiful, blonde, famous and rich and all present a pretty, polite, packaged face of breast cancer.  In Britain Jane Gooding – Big Brother contestant went from being regarded as a loud mouthed racist bigot to a hero when she was diagnosed with cancer. Women living with breast cancer feel they can’t possible live up to these heroes, who make it public that you are not doing it right.

We like to hear about heroism but we don’t want to talk about defeat. The medical profession often finds it very difficult to talk about death. “Our doctor told us that Angela would be off the trial. I asked him what I should do now. He said well you should make an appointment in 4 weeks time but don’t make it yet, what do I do in the meantime well you should get your wife’s affairs in order.  Then it hit me he was trying to tell me that my wife was going to die. All this code I think why cant he just talk to me honestly one adult to another”

We create a hierarchy of heroes, with some types of cancer more sympathetic.

“Surrounded by breast cancer sea of pink, my aunt with lung cancer was envious of support, she felt guilty as people assume she smoked and therefore brought her own cancer on.”

Talk of battle turns inwards into the minds and bodies of patients. Patients go to all ends to win this war. Similar spirit of ANZAC, spirit of patriotism, brings people together to construct hope.Pick a fight with you cancer – game on – patients speak of their bodies as the enemy to be battled.

“Being positive can cause trouble because people can feel that if they are not perpetually positive then they are letting themselves, their families, their doctors down.”

“Language of battle makes it hard to accept defeat.”

“We talked about everything except that she would die. When she died she had a pile of books titled you can beat cancer next to her bed”

“Her battle meant that I could never say goodbye.”

We seem less prepared for death than ever. If we don’t battle what is left is just the uncertainty of death and is that too terrible to face.

There is also an additional narrative that people cause their own cancer by they way they live their life, they have drunk too much alcohol, smoked, not exercised enough or else as Louisa Hay has argued not managed their emotions properly; they have repressed their anger, been too stressed or anxious.

This simplistic, black and white view of cancer is imposed on all people with cancer. As a woman with breast cancer I found myself feeling guilty that I had caused my cancer, which left me feeling powerless and lacking confidence in my own body. In this frame of mind I had limited confidence to challenge the onslaught of the medical system as it deployed its weaponry against my body.

I have found that by engaging with my body through the use of a fusion of creative arts, movement, painting, poetry, and photography, I have been able to reconnect with the power and wisdom held within my body and my intuitive right brain. I have been able to tap into the many complex layers of my female body, which has assisted me to accept my cancer, to make sense of the cancer treatment, to accept my changed body and to live my life as I want to live. I have been liberated from the battleground.

Using creative arts I have been able to explore the messy, confusing side of cancer. The simplistic battleground narrative does not allow space for questioning motives, strategies or indecision. There is no time for delay and the pressure is placed upon you to jump on the medical conveyor belt and not get off until you are cured. To be cured of breast cancer means to look like you used to so the aesthetic decision of whether to have breast reconstruction is included in the treatment.

Reconstructing medical breast diagram

I was painting the other day. I decided to work with the medical diagram that the surgeons use to illustrate their surgical procedures. I cut out a stencil based on this image and used it in my first painting. When I lifted the stencil off I noticed it was covered with paint so made a print of this. When I lifted the stencil off the second art work the left breast shape stayed stuck on the paper.  I then did another print which now had a hole where my breast had previously been. This really seemed to reflect my breast surgery process.

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Relationship with Clay

Hard, grainy, rough
Immersed in water you remain
resistant to my touch
I rub my hands over you
and you give some of yourself to me

I manipulate you in my hands
feel your softness
make indentations with my fingers
My wet hands squeeze your softness
as we create a soft, gooey mess.

We come together
You provide a thin covering
Each influencing the other

I throw you onto the page
and you form into your own shape

I make prints on paper
the texture of my skin amplified through you.


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Judith Wright’s 2011 exhibition A wake, her first major figurative installation, marks a new development in her long meditation on the loss of her daughter, who died shortly after birth many years ago. Wright says ‘the power of the shadow to conjure absence’ directed her to make A wake. The ancient Greeks associated shadows with the soul, and this is true of Wright’s musicians: their shadows are the soul of their music.

Wright’s reference to shadows as a means of conjuring absence resonates with me as I  have been drawn to taking photos of shadows; maybe this is also related to my work about leaving traces of my life behind – traces can also become shadows.

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Paintings of Judith Wright

I just came across the Australian artist Judith Wright. I am drawn to her interest in using the body to convey life’s journey. She often deals with the impermanence and the vulnerability of life.  She came to her art practice from a background in classical dance, having performed with the Australian Ballet for four years so as she says it is only to be expected that she conveys a performer’s sensitivity to the body.  There is something in her images, some of which are shown below, that deeply resonate with me. She seems to capture for me the  idea of the body as landscape of experience. These images were downloaed from http://www.sophiegannongallery.com.au/artists/view/49/judith-wright/work on 18th June 2012

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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 http://accidentalamazon.com

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 Pornhub.com [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 http://accidentalamazon.com