Category Archives: mastectomy

Women who have had a mastectomy

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

A response to your pearly bra



Either of two milk secreting, glandular organs on the chest of a woman; a mass of glandular, fatty and fibrous tissues; the human mammary gland.



The act or result of reconstructing. The activity of constructing something again. Makeover – a complete reconstruction and renovation of something. Reassembly, refabrication – assembling again. Reformation, regeneration – forming again, renewing and reconstituting. An interpretation formed by piecing together bits of evidence. Recall that is hypothesised to work by storing abstract features, which are then used to construct memory during recall. The process of remembering (especially the process of recovering information by mental effort).

In technical description the human experience is lost.

Breasts have stories.

Reconstruction (regeneration, renewal, reformation) unreliant on silicone. The process of remembering (especially the process of recovering stories by art effort).

Regards, Kitty

My first bra

When working with a woman who had had a double mastectomy she talked about her breasts being containers of stories. This made me wonder what happens to these stories when our breasts are removed through surgery?

I was thinking of the stories contained in my own breasts when I had a strong memory of getting my first bra.

As a child and adolescent I was a competitive swimmer. I spent, what seemed to be half my waking hours, dressed only in speedos swimming up and down a pool. I trained twice a day before and after school and three times a day in school holidays. I went through puberty in this swimming culture with its ease of nakedness. In the girl’s change rooms we comfortably chatted and gossiped as we stripped off our wet speedos and got dressed. We had a natural ease with our developing bodies and noticed each other’s budding breasts but we more focused on our bodies as swimming machines than as developing sexual objects.

However, there was always that very embarrassing moment of transition when our breasts were deemed to be of an appropriate size to require being encased in a bra. So at different times we would all go through the rite of passage of being dragged off to the local womenswear shop to be fitted for our first bra.

Being a child of the fifties, there were no comfortable stretchy crop tops as there are today that could provide an easy transition. No, we had the full cotton bra complete with complex hook and eye fitting at the back. So there was a whole new set of skills to learn as we developed breasts, not least was how to put on a bra properly. I was shown by my mother how to put my arms through the bra straps place the bra over my breasts and connect the hooks and eyes at the back by feel. Such a complicated manouvre! I never did accomplish the correct way of putting on a bra.

At different stages each girl would come to swimming shyly sporting their new signifier of womanhood – the bra. I remember choosing not to wear my new bra to swimming for sometime – desperately trying to hang onto my carefree innocence for as long as possible, but eventually I did. The other girls noticed and we laughed uproariously as we shared our stories of our first bra fitting.

I remember my first bra shopping expedition with my mother so clearly. I grew up in Parkdale, a small bayside suburb of Melbourne, Australia. I was born in 1952 so had the innocent carefree childhood of a child of the 50’s in middlle class Australia. Life was comfortable for most Australians, apart from our parents suffering the effects of war, we lived in a bubble of happy innocence and post war prosperity. There were a large number of newly migrated families from the UK, Italy, Greece and Holland (now the Netherlands) who settled with varying ease into our suburbs.  My memories of going to a small catholic school is of us kids mixing well, with a fascination in the strange food that the Greeks and Italians brought to lunch and an awareness of their different garlic infused smell; but we all easily made friendships. And I had lots of crushes on the handsome brown eyed, olive skinned Greek and Italian boys.

Our suburb had a small shopping strip with the all the shops that we would need, a licenced grocer, greengrocer, newsagent, menswear shop, a milk bar (the much friendlier forerunner of today’s 7 eleven stores) and Mrs. McGain’s Ladies Wear and Lingerie shop. It was to Mrs McGains that I was dragged off by my mother for my first bra fitting. Being the third daughter I had seen by two older sisters go on a shopping expedition and arrive home with two new bras.

Mrs. McGain was an appropriately large cheery big bosomed woman. In the 50’s women had bosoms, rather than breasts a terms we no longer use. This word depicts for me the more maternal, motherly well covered breasts of women of the 1950’s. Unlike today’s focus on breasts as sexual objects with bras constructed to present our uplifted perky breasts to the world. In the 50’s bras were practical serviceable underwear garments to keep a woman’s breasts in place. They were made of cotton with some lace trim but they were made to encase the whole breast.  As a young girl most of the women I knew were mothers so I saw them as mother figures with these nice soft bosoms I could be enveloped in when I needed a hug. This was in stark contrast to the nuns who taught me in my catholic school.  The nuns were neither sexual or maternal, their breasts were flattened and hidden beyond recognition underneath their many layered black habits. A large wooden cross adorned their chests and there was no hint of them having breasts beneath their habits.

So Mrs. McGain fitted the norm of a large bosomed motherly woman whose breasts seemed to create a convenient shelf on which to rest her glasses and her measuring tape.  Her shop contained some women’s fashion wear – dresses, cardigans, blouses as well as hosiery (stockings and suspender belts) gloves, nightwear (nighties, brunch coats and dressing gowns), and ladies lingerie – petticoats, underpants, singlets, spencers and bras. Writing this I am aware of how my childhood really does represent a distant era – women no longer wear petticoats, or singlets or spencers. We seemed to have so many more undergarment layers in those days!

There was one small fitting room in the back corner of Mrs. McGain’s.  I was told to go in there and take my top off. Mrs McGain came in and placed the cold tape measure around my chest to measure me for size. Being a swimmer I had a very broad back and small breasts. There was really only one style of first bra. It was a simple white cotton with a broderie anglaise lace trim with a small piece of elastic and two hooks and eyes at the back. When I put it on it felt like a straightjacket. I felt like I couldn’t breathe with this tight band of cotton squeezing my chest. To this day I hate wearing bras and only ever wear them when in the outside world. The first thing I do when I enter my home is take off my bra. I still dislike the feeling of restraint I get with a bra.

Writing this I am amazed at how remembering my first bra fitting has brought such a rush of memories of my childhood. It has taken me back to my days of competitive swimming of going to the small strip shopping centre of Parkdale. Of a much more innocent era when life in the middle class Australian suburbs was care free, of long summers spent at the beach, playing with my friends in the street outside, of close knit neighbourhoods and families.

It has brought to my attention the rich stories that are contained in my breast.

Scar Project

Another website for those interested in scars is This website contains a gallery of portrait photos by David Jay of women with breast cancer proudly showing their scarred chests.  His exhibition is entitled Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon!

Red not Pink!

Once I became aware of the pink lady it seemed to assault me from all directions. I made this movie

Normative Bodies

This is a movie I presented at the International Conference of the International Association for the study of sexuality, culture and society in Madrid in July 2011.

Inflated Pink Girl

I have found the whole consumerism of the pink lady brand to sell anything from soft drink to soft toys quite offensive. Just because I have breast cancer doesn’t mean I automatically morph into some stereotypical ‘Stepford’ wife dressed in pink! One day while walking in the city of Melbourne I was confronted by a giant inflated pink lady. I wondered what it was all about. It was a promotion for Berlie Bras for free fittings for their newest sexy lacy bra. The fact that they were donating a small amount of money to breast cancer research allowed them to use the breast cancer logo to promote their product. A product that is pretty much out of reach for women with breast cancer who have to wear a prosethis.

In response I wrote this poem

Inflated Pink Girl

Inflated little baby pink girl
She brings to mind the delightful innocence
of childhood;
of playing carefree and loved
full of energy and joy.
Strange that she has been adopted
as the logo for breast cancer research.

Breast cancer which is treated by
chemotherapy, radiation and surgery
leaving women feeling assaulted.
Questioning their femininity
as their hair falls out
and their breasts are cut away.

Kay Gravell
10th June 2010