Breast cancer survivors’ unique art therapy

October 23, 2016 GMT

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — In a trying time when her life would change dramatically, multimedia artist Lynn Laird discovered a way to cope with her breast cancer diagnosis and double mastectomy.

Laird made full body and nipple print art to memorialize the part of her she’d lose in surgery. In nipple print art, the person covers their breasts with paint and leaves an imprint on the paper or canvas. Laird then makes artistic paintings around the imprints to camouflage the impression.

Laird tried this unconventional art technique on herself the night before her surgery in 2011.

“It’s a way to spend that energy, because you’re not sleeping, you’re not resting,” she said.

Now she offers other breast cancer patients the opportunity to memorialize their breasts in this way before undergoing mastectomies.


It’s a ritual of healing, reflection and celebration that’s gotten Laird and many others through the trying times.

Creating nipple art is like a ritual ceremony.

The subject has her choice of non-toxic paint and backdrop — paper or canvas. She then baptizes herself in the paint before pressing against the blank slate and leaving her imprint.

She decides how many imprints are applied to the piece, where and in what pattern. Once they’ve dried, Laird takes the pieces and, while the subject is in recovery after surgery, she creates an artistic image around the imprints. Multiple pieces are made in one session. Laird gets to know the woman’s personality and interests during previous meetings and in the art session and uses the knowledge to add images that reflect the her personality.

It is a surprisingly therapeutic process, Laird said.

“When I was diagnosed and preparing to have surgery, they told me I would need to make sure I had a way to process the grief — to expect grief and emotions,” she said. “I needed to plan some way that I would be able to address that. I really wasn’t having any of those feelings, so I didn’t know how to begin that process. So the night before, I thought, ‘I”ll do nipple prints. I’ll do body prints. I’ll make prints of these that won’t always be here because this will drastically change my landscape. This will be a big change for me.’”

The final art could be anything from floating jellyfish to a pair of eyes with brightly colored irises. Rosy poppies are Laird’s favorite.

“It’s like finger painting with the body,” Laird said.

The nipple prints are not immediately seen in the paintings, making them easier to display. They become a shared secret among those who know the stories behind them.

“If you know what they are, you know. It’s not an aggressive, in-your-face art. It’s subtle,” Laird said. “It became a way to open up a very delicate topic with people.”

It was just the beginning of her therapeutic process.


Laird was in recovery in the fall of 2011 when she exhibited her personal nipple print art collection at the Bossier Arts Council. It was where her friend Victoria Provenza would see and admire it.

Then in July 2012, Provenza — a school teacher and one-time mayoral candidate — was diagnosed with a hereditary breast and ovarian cancer mutation. She then learned she was to undergo a radical double mastectomy, leaving nothing on the chest to which the cancerous tumor could reattach and grow.

She knew immediately she wanted to make nipple art with Laird to preserve the memory of her breasts before they were gone.

A month after being diagnosed — the night before her surgery — Provenza welcomed Laird into her home. They turned on a 1970′s disco music playlist and the two began their paint party.

It was therapeutic for both. For Provenza, she doesn’t know if she could have made it through the night without Laird’s companionship and the artistic project. It was a healing process and one she would have regretted not doing if she’d opted out.

“Had I come out on the other side I would have come out really remorseful and really missing,” she said. “It would have had a whole different meaning to me, but because I did the process I healed so much faster. I was able to let go. I just let it go.”

Letting go of her breasts meant letting go of a major part of the body that serve as identifiers of womanhood and motherhood.

“It was a very emotional thing for me, and it helped me tremendously to be able to let go because I knew that I would always have this art to hold on to,” Provenza said.

Last week, Provenza saw the finished art collection for the first time, featuring poppies and sea creatures in various shades and blends of colors.

The painting of two turtles swimming is her personal favorite.

“Mine was very spiritual for the turtles because the turtles represent my two children and the turtle is my spirit animal,” Provenza said. “In the Native American culture, it’s known as the mother earth animal — the mother who carries her children on her back.”

She will exhibit the work in her home.

For Laird, sharing the artistic process was what she needed to continue her own healing. The art she creates is surprisingly uplifting and emotional and upbeat, which helps breast cancer patients who don’t know what to expect.

Laird facilitates the process and creates the nipple art for other breast cancer survivors in their homes or her private art studio in Bossier City. Laird gives the person the option of photographing the process for her personal memories and documentation.

“I didn’t have any idea how therapeutic it would be,” Laird said. “I didn’t have any idea the connection it’d make with other breast cancer patients.”

She’s also had non-breast cancer clients request nipple art work to give as gifts for significant others or for their own art collection.

?“It’s really about the healing, what Lynn’s art does,” Provenza said. “She uniquely understands that you are letting go of something you’ve been connected to your whole life.”

After the mastectomy was complete and healed, Provenza visited a second artist — Pippa Gipson, owner of Permanent Makeup by Pippa in Shreveport.

Gipson’s regularly offered services include skin care, waxing and permanent makeup such as eyeliner, eyebrows and scar coverage. More than a year ago, she added aerola reconstruction tattoos to the list.

Receiving the areola tattoos after breast reconstruction surgery made Provenza feel complete again.

“When you go through the (mastectomy) process, get the (breast) reconstruction and all the scars heal it looks like what is like Barbie boobs — you just have skin, that’s it,” Provenza said. “You can get a tattooed areola . . . on your breast so you look somewhat normal.” She even can make a nipple appear to be three dimensional.

After the breast cancer survivor heals from the mastectomy, Gipson uses permanent tattoo ink to recreate the look of an aerola and/or nipple. She gives clients options from circle templates and color blends. In the case of a single mastectomy, she matches the ink color of the ink to the original aerola’s natural shading. She numbs the area and applies the tattooed areola in one session.

She receives clients through referrals from local doctors, she said. But her first client six and a half year ago was her mother-in-law, who had a mastectomy and asked Gibson to give her the tattooed aerolas. She said her mother-in-law felt like a new person.

Mastectomy patients can suffer from self-esteem and body image issues, she said, but she has witnessed the positive transformation of clients after receiving the tattoos.

“It’s gratifying to see the pleasure they get from feeling normal again,” Gipson said.

At this time, she doesn’t charge the for aerola tattoos, which she sees as a contribution of support to the women.

Clients may book appointments for flesh-tone permanent tattoo coverage for scars, burns and skin discoloration, which are a part of her regular services.

″(It’s for) the ones who have gotten in a car accident and they’ve been so self-conscious their entire life or the cancer survivor that just wants to be normal,” Gipson said.

“You sit there and talk while doing it and get to know the person and hear their background, that’s cool too. It’s almost like you’re going through a part of their journey with them and you’re the end result of the journey,” Gipson said. “They’ve finished cancer, they beat it, they’ve had their reconstruction — or if they’ve decided not too — and you’re the last step of their journey.”


Information from: The Times,