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Art exhibition helps breast cancer survivors find

Art exhibition helps breast cancer survivors find "a new normal"

In a crowded art gallery, a woman on canvas sits naked in a shower, glancing at what used to be her left breast.

A vivid red line is all that remains. But the woman in the portrait knows only too well that the scars left by a breast cancer diagnosis run much deeper.

Louise Stedman's portrait is part of a new art exhibition in Aberdeen that aims to show the stark reality of being diagnosed with, and surviving, breast cancer.

Through a potent mix of powerful imagery and prose The Breathless Breastless Project - now running at Seventeen - showcases the work of 12 cancer sufferers and artists.

"We need to get something out there to highlight the effects of this disease," said the project's founder Louise Stedman, 50, from Aberdeen (pictured below).

  (Evelina Cassari)
via STV via STV

"This shows the real journey including the sad parts you don't often hear about."

Louise was diagnosed with cancer in August 2012. After being told she would require a mastectomy, she went online to see what consequences the surgery would have.

"There wasn't much out there to tell me what I was going to look like and what my life would be like afterwards," she explained.

Eventually, Louise came across The Scar Project, an American website filled with black and white photography showing the true reality of living with breast cancer.

The site inspired her to do something similar in Scotland.

Six months in the making, The Breathless Breastless Project brings together cancer survivors and artists who have also been affected by the disease in some way.

  (Jane Birrel MacKenzie)
via STV via STV

While curating the project, Louise became determined to tell the true story of what it is like to live with a cancer diagnosis, including how the journey continues long after initial treatment is over.

"People say, 'oh that's great, you've kicked cancer's ass'. They think it's all over but it never goes away," said Louise.

"You have your treatment, you're sent home and you have to pick up the pieces.

"It's a very isolating and lonely time because everyone's life around you carries on while you try to slowly rebuild your own life and body."

  (Beate Allerton)
via STV via STV

Louise adds that for those directly involved in the project, other aims were to promote collective healing, enable emotional expression and strengthen self esteem and body image.

"The idea is to put this into art to let people express their emotions," she explained.

The resulting artwork reflects the simple truth that fighting cancer is a seriously tough mental and physical battle, and that no-one's journey is ever the same.

In its approach, the Breathless Breastless Exhibition is honest, uncompromising and unflinching.

  (Lou Loakes)
via STV via STV

It contains around 30 pieces including paintings, ceramics, photography and video installations that attempt to convey the emotions felt when trying to cope with losing your hair, breasts, confidence and sense of self.

In order to tell real stories of real cancer journeys, many of the artists, some of whom are graduates of Gray's School of Art, spoke to Louise and other local cancer survivors, and captured their stories during life drawing classes.

The exhibition also tells the story of Doug Harper, a male breast cancer survivor who is keen to promote the fact that the disease can affect men too.

  (Tracey Swift)
via STV via STV

One of the more poignant pieces to come out of the project is a photograph shared by Hannah Foxley, who was an ambassador for Breakthrough Breast Cancer and sadly passed away last month, aged 37.

Despite the subject matter, Louise says that the exhibition aims to be uplifting and positive.

She said: "I thought art would be a really good way to express emotions and do something in a positive light.

"The message to get across is 'live'. It shows the hope on the journey and the healing and moving forward.

"You don't return to normal, you find a new normal."

Looking back on the project and the reaction it's received so far, Louise is overwhelmed by what she and all those involved have achieved.

  (Louise Stedman)
via STV via STV

"With a cancer diagnosis you reflect on your life and look at things differently. I'm not an artist and I've never organised an exhibition," she admitted.

"But when you're told you have cancer, it knocks you so far off your feet and out your comfort zone that nothing else life throws at you is ever going to be as tough."

It's a positive spin on an often life-shattering disease, which the Breathless Breastless Exhibition fully embodies to powerful effect.

The Breathless Breastless Project runs at Seventeen on Belmont Street until July 13. The exhibition will also go on display at Aberdeen Arts Centre from September, 8.

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