Artists transform symbols of pain into objects of beauty
Radiation masks showcase courage of patients
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Lying on a table in Cookie Kerxton's tiny Bethesda art studio is a symbol of unparalleled pain and suffering: a white, plastic mask of her own face she wore during treatment for throat cancer.
The loss of speech, being fed through her stomach, the severe dry mouth, the burns on her neck the mask serves as a reminder of her lowest moments, spent strapped to an operating table with the mask covering her face and bolted to the table, the radiation blasting away at the malignant polyps that lined her throat.
"You're only there for about 10 minutes," Kerxton, 73, said last week at the Upstairs Art Studio on St. Elmo Avenue. "But it's really not fun."
When Kerxton beat her cancer, after four long months of chemotherapy in 2008, she wanted to keep the radiation mask, a bland but morbid piece of plastic that Kerxton said her friends call "ghoulish." Since, Kerxton gathered more than 100 radiation masks from area hospitals and found more than 100 artists from across the country to turn the masks into pieces of art, rather than symbols of pain.
"It's taking something ghoulish' and making it something someone would want to have on their wall," Kerxton said.
In September, Kerxton's exhibit, called "Courage Unmasked," debuted before more than 500 people at a fundraiser and live auction at the Katzen Arts Center at American University. The roughly 40 masks still for sale will be exhibited starting Saturday at the Pyramid Atlantic Art Center community store in Silver Spring.
The proceeds from all art sales will go toward 9114HNC, a foundation Kerxton began that benefits patients of head and neck cancer and has already raised $29,000. The money is much deserved for patients of a disease that doesn't receive the donations or the publicity of more common cancers but typically affects low-income or elderly people, Kerxton said.
There are an estimated 35,720 new cases of head and neck cancer nationally so far this year and 7,600 deaths, said Gopaul Bajaj, who was the director of head and neck cancer radiation oncology at Johns Hopkins University's Kimmel Cancer Center in Baltimore when Kerxton was admitted there.
Many patients are afflicted with the disease at older ages after years of tobacco or alcohol abuse or living in urban areas, Bajaj said. Because radiation is applied to more sensitive areas, the side effects can be more severe and last longer.
"It's making something beautiful out of something they associated with so much pain and suffering," Bajaj, who has since moved from Johns Hopkins to Inova Fairfax Hospital in Virginia, said of the masks, one of which he bought at the fundraiser.
After sending e-mails out to artists she knows and receiving more than 100 responses, Kerxton began collecting blank masks and distributing them to artists as far away as California and London. The response was so overwhelming Kerxton didn't even have time to decorate a mask herself.
The masks were formed by taking plastic that Kerxton said felt like "wet noodles" and forming it to a patient's face before it hardened. With a blank slate and no model to work from, the artists sent in a variety of different interpretations of the mask.
Rockville artist and cancer survivor Carol Kanga asked Bajaj, who was also her doctor, for a purple leftover radiation mask so she could preserve her own mask as a reminder of the 35-session, seven-week radiation treatment she conquered in 2006. She turned it into a vibrant swirl of purple, green and red, celebrating her triumph over the skin cancer on her neck and the tumor beneath her tongue.
If the masks hadn't been available "I would've lost half of my tongue and part of my neck," said Kanga, 53, who was introduced to Kerxton through Bajaj. "It's an incredible symbol for me, of the advancement of science in helping humanity."
Another artist, Jessica Beels, dedicated her mask to her mother-in-law, who underwent radiation treatment for cancer. Francie Hester dedicated her mask to her friend's son, Silver Spring resident Brendan Ogg, 19, who is undergoing treatment for brain cancer.
Michael Winger's mask contains a ceramic cast of his face he made in a college art class and a cover of plastic gauze over the entire piece. The gauze has a hole where the bronze ceramic face peeks through, portraying his younger, healthier self trying but failing to break through to the other side of cancer treatment.
He hopes it shows onlookers what it's like to feel trapped not only by a mask, but a disease that consumes your life.
"That's what I felt like," said Winger, 49, of Silver Spring. "Being trapped inside this mask, not able to move."
-Courage Unmasked opens Saturday at ArtSpring, Pyramid Atlantic Art Center's new community arts store at 8519 Georgia Ave. in Silver Spring. Created by artists nationwide using radiation masks formerly worn by head and neck cancer patients, the sculptures will be open for bids through silent auction and winners will be announced at the closing reception noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 24. All auction proceeds benefit head and neck cancer patients.
-For a slideshow of notable masks and how they were inspired, visit www.gazette.net and search "Courage Unmasked."