Bio-Medical Library’s Breast Cancer Superheroes Art Exhibit: Spotlight on Radiation Diva

by Rachel Hawkins

The Bio-Medical Library’s walls have recently been adorned with bright paintings of superheroes for the newest exhibit in the Art @ Bio-Med program, running now through October 2 (exhibit information).  

But they are more than just flashy paintings. These are the stories of survivors.

Breast Cancer Superheros Art Exhibit at the Bio-Medical Library
Breast Cancer Superheros Art Exhibit at the Bio-Medical Library

Inspired by many close friends undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, artist Barbara Porwit saw women turning health challenges into personal power. The concept for her Breast Cancer Superhero Project emerged and resulted in six stunning, large-scale oil paintings that combine pop art, positive psychology, and the universal hero’s journey. 

In this series of news features, we will introduce you to the superheroes and share each woman’s inspiring story.   

The first superhero is Jill Stanton: Radiation Diva.

Jill Stanton: Radiation Diva

Wife, sister, daughter, writer, performer, stage manager extraordinaire, thespian, unicorn 
Diagnosed in 2009 at age 37 
Lumpectomy, radiation 

Jill Stanton believes in what’s invisible. 

Every day for seven weeks, Stanton hiked her body onto a metal table to expose her breast to radiation. While technicians ducked behind concrete walls to dodge the danger, Stanton held still beneath the beam so it could kill away any rogue cancer cells that might have remained after her lumpectomy. 

Jill Stanton: Radiation Diva. Art by Barbara Porwit.
Jill Stanton: Radiation Diva. Art by Barbara Porwit.

There was another unseen force in the air: music. 

Lying prone and perfectly still beneath the beam, Stanton closed her eyes and listened to the beat and the rhythm that poured from the speaker. 

Stanton remembered that exposure to radiation is a key element in many superhero origination stories. Every day during those long weeks, she concentrated on the lyrics of the music that played believing that each song contained a secret message that would expand the power of the radiation to keep the cancer away forever. Lying prone and perfectly still beneath the beam, she decoded the songs, listening for the superpowers that would help her to heal. To triumph. 

“Imagining my superhero persona, and being able to smile about it – that’s how I coped. That’s what saw me through,” she said. 

Stanton believes in what can’t be seen. Because, like hope and determination, the power of what’s invisible can save us all. 

Drawing out the Superhero within

Artist’s notes

Jill and I have known each other for a long time. I was on the list of friends that got a daily post about music playing on the radio as she was treated, with her request for suggestions of superpowers she would get based on the songs. I was dumbfounded by Jill’s imagination and good humor in the face of her diagnosis. 

Admiring Jill as she claimed the power that she needed to get through her treatment was part of what fired up this project. 

Jill was my first portrait subject and we talked at length about an original costume. A seasoned performer, Jill wanted to be pictured with her feathered fans. In an inspired idea, she suggested transforming her hospital bracelets into Wonder Woman bracelets and I decided she would deflect breast cancer bullets. Jill fashioned a Disco-ball inspired bra that she wore for her photo shoot. 

The challenge in this painting was to resist the urge to make it too busy. I had to make choices about what the viewer really needed to focus on – there is so much back story it would have been easy to tell too much. 

At a certain point I knew it had to be about the pathways of the bullets. They are all around her but they aren’t getting to her. 

Most of all, it had to be about the look in her eyes. It needed to say: “You can’t get me. I got this.”

– Artist Barbara Porwit

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