Taking surprising turns runs in Kate Kunkel's family.
Her mother, Bonnie Clawson, was on her way home from a bilateral mastectomy after receiving a breast cancer diagnosis in 2007 when she decided to stop at a garage sale. Now Clawson has helped inspire a new twist on the aftermath of such surgeries.
Kunkel, after many discussions with her mother "about what it means to have breast cancer in a culture that idolizes the perfect physique," decided to keep that conversation alive in a big way. On Friday evening Kunkel, a writer, will join Twin Cities photographers Elli Rader and Elizabeth Barnwell to launch "Of Scars" (www.ofscars.org), a project featuring 21 images of Twin Cities women revealing their scarred breasts after cancer surgery.
"This is not a high-fashion shoot," said Kunkel, 30. "These women wear these scars as a badge of honor."
The event, from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., at 110 N. 3rd St. (the loft studio of Carter Averbeck), will include food and drink, music and a panel discussion on health and healing with breast cancer survivor and media personality Kevyn Burger. A donation of $10 is suggested.
The idea for "Of Scars" began to percolate in January but, Kunkel said with a laugh, "we're artists. We never really had a direction for where it would go."
With Rader on board, they knew that photography would be a key component. Through word of mouth, the two women found about a dozen survivors of all ages willing to participate. Some had a single breast removed, some had both. Some chose reconstructive surgery; others did not.
Feedback from family and friends buoyed them to continue. Their vision now includes a robust blog, a Twitter feed and plans to take the show on the road.
"Something about this project hits close to home for a lot of people," Kunkel said. "Breast cancer is an interesting window into how our culture views women, sexuality, beauty."
As the project grew, they brought in arts educator and documentary photographer Barnwell to help. "I believe in the power of photography to educate and make positive change in the world," said Barnwell, who has carried her camera to Kenya and Tanzania, as well as to Malawi, where she took photographs for Madonna's nonprofit Raising Malawi project.
Barnwell, who lost close friend and fellow photographer Leah Campbell to breast cancer in 2005, was delighted to be asked.
"There are so many stories to be told, so many images to make," she said.
But the sensitive nature of the photographs gave her pause. "It would be really uncomfortable to talk to survivors over the phone and, then, when they show up at the studio, just ask them to take off their shirt."
Instead, she met with each woman for coffee and to hear their stories. One woman contacted Barnwell to participate after reading about a woman who dressed and undressed in a closet for five years after her breast-cancer surgery. That woman told Barnwell, "I don't want that to be me."
Others told her, "When you've been through something life-altering and traumatic, one of the things you can do is help somebody else. They said, 'If this helps one other woman feel OK about her body, I want to participate.'"
Bridget O'Boyle, of Minneapolis, was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago at age 33. She had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, and is thriving.
O'Boyle, the mother of two school-age children, heard about the project through a friend. "At first I thought, this is really cool," said O'Boyle. "Then I thought, I don't know if I can do it. In the age of the Internet, I worried that it would be all over the Web. Once I met Elizabeth and got to know her photographic skills, I said, 'You're going to take a picture of me that will be a piece of art.'"
For levity, O'Boyle posed with her "crazy mutt" Louie, a 3-year-old dog she adopted from the Animal Humane Society on the one-year anniversary of being cancer-free.
"He reminds me of funny things," O'Boyle said. But the seriousness of what she endured is hard to ignore. After Barnwell showed her the photos of her new body, "I had to stare at them for 10 minutes," O'Boyle said. "Oh, my God. I have giant scars across my chest. Elizabeth had to talk me through them."
Still, O'Boyle has no regrets about the photo shoot. "I'm taking one for the team here, so someone else can say, 'She looks pretty normal.'"
Not all women buy into their premise. One blogger wrote of herself and her partner: "We're both lesbians, and men don't, in fact, have any impact on how we feel about our beauty and strength. Not our brothers or fathers, not the men who want to co-opt our sexuality for their pleasure."
Kunkel is grateful for their feedback.
"Our goal from Day One was to start a different kind of discussion," she said. "To do that, you need a broad range of perspectives." But hope will rule the night. "We want this to be a night where people say, 'Look how many women beat this,'" she said.
Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 firstname.lastname@example.org