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How Art Can Re-Order A Harsh, ‘Deformed’ Childhood

Artist Evelyn Berde was born with congenital scoliosis in 1950 and spent many years in and out of Massachusetts General Hospital, confined to a bed for months at a time.

Her art, she says, is informed by her experience living with her “deformity,” as it was referred to back then, and her childhood growing up in the old West End of Boston, a low-income neighborhood near MGH and the Charles River, which was razed in the late 1950s, displacing many residents.

It wasn’t an easy childhood: Alcoholism ran in the family and Evelyn’s brother drowned in the Charles River when he was nine and she was just six. Evelyn was subjected to numerous surgeries and procedures for her scoliosis — some that now seem barbaric.

But art, she says, “has the ability to lift us out of one place and take us to another.”

Here, you can listen to Evelyn talk about five of her paintings and tell the stories that helped shape them.

Artist Evelyn Berde's "Shame" (Courtesy Berde)

Artist Evelyn Berde’s “Shame” (Courtesy Berde)

Artist Evelyn Berde's "July 12, 1956" (Courtesy Berde)

Artist Evelyn Berde’s “July 12, 1956” (Courtesy Berde)

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Art As A Conversation About Cancer With ‘Anyone Who Will Listen’

"Adjusted Schedule" by Dennis Svoronos (Courtesy of the artist) (Click to enlarge)

“Adjusted Schedule” by Dennis Svoronos (Courtesy of the artist) (Click to enlarge)

Art, in its essence, is just another way to tell a story, a way for humans to make meaning out of their experiences. At Health Story Collaborative, a nonprofit founded by Dr. Annie Brewster, a Boston internist and CommonHealth contributor who uses storytelling in a therapeutic context, artists are invited to tell their unique stories.

Here, Dennis Svoronos, a Boston-based sculptor who describes his work as existing “between art and engineering,” reflects on his cancer as a force for creativity and social engagement.

By Dennis Svoronos

In September of 2009 — at 26 years of age — I was diagnosed with cancer after experiencing the first of many seizures. Of all the trials I could imagine that lay ahead, I never thought most of them would be exercises in recollection.

Patient name? Dennis Svoronos (thankfully I can always get this one)

Date of birth? 3/8/83 (a palindrome, helps to keep it easy)

Occupation? Artist (maybe not my parents first choice)

Approximate date of last surgery? 11/09 (Who forgets their first brain surgery)

Existing medical conditions? Anaplastic Astrocytoma (a cancerous brain tumor)

Repeat daily, for years.

"Just in Case" by Dennis Svoronos (Courtesy of the artist)

“Just in Case” by Dennis Svoronos (Courtesy of the artist) (Click to enlarge)

As time progressed; I remember those waiting rooms — questions and ID tags — much more than the operating theatre and injections; trauma is kind of like that.

However, they made me feel intrinsically linked to my disease. What was I, without these suffixes of sickness to identify with? Somehow, all my other unique and admirable qualities were set aside for the identifier of ‘cancer patient’.

It’s easy to resign to the belief that those forms and wristbands define your life, mere statistics, data — you and your cancer. Just as painless is to ignore the process completely, pretending your exams and operations are the bad dreams of another person, your ‘real life’ goes on unaffected.

Either way, it seems you’re not to talk openly about cancer, and it is difficult for most; patients, family and doctors alike. My initial sense was, it would be easier for me — and more comfortable for others — to keep off the topic. Sickness is a surprisingly taboo subject in a very liberal culture.

The artist in me, however, couldn’t stop questioning why we hide from the discussion. Continue reading